Despite pandemic, rates of syphilis and other STIs continue to rise in B.C.

·2 min read
Syphilis is easily spread through sexual contact and can damage vital organs and lead to death if left untreated.  (Getty Images - image credit)
Syphilis is easily spread through sexual contact and can damage vital organs and lead to death if left untreated. (Getty Images - image credit)

Despite physical distancing measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections have increased in B.C. over the last year.

According to the latest data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, those numbers had a slight dip at the beginning of the pandemic but then continued to rise ever higher over the last year.

Jason Wong, an epidemiologist at the B.C. CDC, says the data doesn't come as much of a surprise to health professionals like him.

Rates of syphilis and other STIs have increased worldwide over the last decade.

"This long-term trend of increasing sexually transmitted infections is one of the things that we've been really paying attention to," Wong said.

"We are still concerned about the kind of overarching trend and are thinking about what are some of the things that we may need to put in place to try to prevent more sexually transmitted infections."

Syphilis, which for most people exhibits few symptoms in its initial stages, is routinely screened for in the gay male population, which Wong says accounts for about 80 per cent of new infections.

If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious health problems including damage to essential organs as well as dementia, paralysis, blindness and eventually death.

Million dollar question

Wong says the reason why STI rates have risen in the past decade is "the million dollar question."

Some theories include more pervasive and routine testing, while others suggest that people may be taking fewer precautions and using condoms less frequently.

As for why there was an initial dip in syphilis infections at the beginning of the pandemic, Wong says it's likely because people either no longer had the same access to testing or were reluctant to access testing sites because of a concern of contracting COVID-19.

Simon Rayak, program manager for health promotion at the Health Initiative for Men (HIM), agrees that the disruption of regular sexual health testing and treatment services could have led to fewer cases being detected and thus more spread.

Mental health and loneliness

Rayak thinks some members of the LGBTQ community, who may already face stigma because of their sexual orientation, may not have been willing to face the added stigma of not following social distancing guidelines and seeking social interaction in ways that isn't always recognized by society at large and the medical community.

"Something that is sometimes missed is the ways that sex acts as ways of socializing and bonding between non-cis [transgender], non-straight community members," he said.

Rayak points out that gay, queer and bisexual men already experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness than straight people, and the pandemic could have compounded the effects on their social and mental wellbeing.

Telling that population to find other avenues to experience social connection and sexual pleasure when they're already struggling with those issues isn't as easy as it seems, he says.

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