Awareness campaign credited as one reason more people get tested, says spokesperson

Sores. Flu-like sickness. Body rashes. Patchy hair loss. Death.

These are the symptoms of syphilis.

During a time when clinics and cures are accessible, syphilis is remarkably prevalent in Alberta.

But new stats may paint a more optimistic picture.

A recent report indicates that the numbers have dropped considerably. Syphilis cases have dropped from an average of 279 cases per hundred thousand people in 2009, to 168 cases per hundred thousand in 2010.

Micky Elabdi, a spokesperson for Alberta Health and Wellness, acknowledges the problem and a long-term solution is in the works.

“Back in May last year, we approved and developed a five-year plan to target syphilis and other congenital diseases,” Elabdi says.

Some of the immediate results of the campaign were noticed, especially at clinics.

“People were getting tested more frequently,” Elabdi says. “We saw a 17 per cent increase in visits at clinics. Staff there had to develop a triage approach in consulting and treating the influx of patients.”

Without the campaign to draw awareness to syphilis, it’s likely that numbers would have continued to rise in Alberta.Alberta Health and Wellness credits awareness website Plenty of Syph as one reason more people are getting tested.
Screenshot courtesy of:  Alberta Health and Wellness

A 2010 report conducted by the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health in Alberta says that from 2002 to 2009, syphilis has been steadily increasing in Canada – especially in Alberta.

The report highlights that while the disease may be more prominent in transient groups and young adults, it has been found in teenagers as young as 14 and in seniors as old as 84.

Dr. Andre Corriveau, Alberta chief medical officer, says many young adults migrated to Alberta seeking work during the economic boom in the mid 2000s.

Despite the end of the boom in 2008, Alberta continues to have an above-average population of young adults, the Statistics Canada website says.

Corriveau says that Alberta Health and Wellness, teaming up with a marketing group, abandoned its outdated approach to drawing awareness to these issues.

“We were using traditional approaches to the matter and we weren’t reaching our audience,” Corriveau says. “We used focus groups with only young people. That’s how we came up with Plenty of Syph.”

Despite the perceived success, the campaign hasn’t reached everyone in its target audience.

Justin Hamilton, 22, is vaguely aware of the ads and has no idea about Alberta’s $14 million spent on the campaign.

“I might have seen an ad but I had no idea that it was a problem,” Hamilton says. “I’ve always been aware of sexually transmitted diseases and I’ve had myself tested before, but I wasn’t affected by any ads.”

Syphilis isn’t just harming those participating in unprotected sex.

Elabdi discusses the more dangerous side of syphilis as a congenital disease – a disease passed down to babies in the womb.

“We wanted to draw awareness to infants being born with syphilis,” Elabdi says. “Since 2005, 25 babies have been born with congenital syphilis. Nine of those 25 have since died.”

Corriveau says that in moving forward, it’s important to stay on top of these issues and continue to develop new ways to reach people.

“It’s one thing to draw awareness to an issue, but you need to get people into clinics to get tested and treated,” he says.

“You really have to stay up to date with what’s on the scene. It’s important to renew your message with every generation.”

ahenn@cjournal.ca