A new crusader in Ottawa

Animated Syphilis guy comes with a message

An animated syphilis character will be warning gay men in bathhouses about the disease this summer.

In response to increased syphilis rates among gay men, gay community and public health agencies in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal have combined their resources and will be launching the Tri-City Anti-Syphilis Campaign sometime this summer.

“Syphilis is Back” is an animated public service announcement video that will target the gay community initially through bathhouses. The video features Syphilis, a gangly, Gumby-like character, touring a bathhouse talking about symptoms, testing and dispelling rumors in a humorous manner.

“Groovy! Blowjobs are a perfect way for me to get around,” Syphilis says during an oral sex scene.

Humour aside, the very serious message is to get tested and that condoms will not always protect you from syphilis.

In 2002, Ottawa recorded 16 cases of infectious syphilis. Four new cases have already been added in 2003. Last year’s cases were almost exclusively gay, and this year’s new cases are all gay men, says Dr Mary Gordon, Medical Director of Ottawa’s Sexual Health Centre.

By comparison, in the previous decade, there were typically one to three cases per year, notes Gordon. She says she is concerned because the summer months are still ahead, when historically the largest numbers of cases develop.

People think they don’t have to worry because it’s only a few people and no one they know or have had sex with has it, says Bruce Bursey, president of Pink Triangle Services.

“But if we have to wait for everyone to know someone before they go get tested, then it’s going to be a real problem,” he states.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria. It starts as a painless ulcer usually found in the oral, genital or rectal region 10 days to three weeks after exposure. The second stage, occurring up to three months later, appears as a body rash characteristically on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, sometimes with accompanying flu-like symptoms. While all these symptoms may heal themselves, the bacteria are not gone, warns Gordon.

Syphilis can be treated with penicillin injections at this point. That is why Gordon says she advises regular testing every three months for high-risk individuals, but notes anyone at risk should be tested. Testing is available at the Sexual Health Centre and in Ottawa’s two bathhouses, or through family physicians.

She also notes syphilis will not show up in blood tests until four to six weeks after exposure, and if it’s not treated, results can be extremely serious.

“The person is still infectious for one to two years,” Gordon states. “The bacteria become a latent infection that can reactivate decades later.”


While syphilis is not contagious in this latent period, it can lead to severe damage of the brain, liver, heart and eyes. In this tertiary stage, syphilis is incurable.

That is one of the reasons the focus of the animated video is on getting tested, says Stéphan Duchesne, coordinator of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa’s Man2Man Project.

“Symptoms appear and then disappear for extended periods of time, it’s in those extended periods of time that you might think, ‘I’m very healthy,’ and continue engaging in unsafe sex, unsafe behavior and infecting other men,” he explains.

With a total budget of $35,000, Bursey explains that if the project is successful, there’s room for follow up videos, on-line availability and e-mail streaming.

Produced by Boomstone Animation in both official languages, its primary purpose is to run between movies in bathhouses without interrupting the mood.

“We’re not suggesting this is the answer. We’re trying it as one innovative, creative, culturally sensitive way of doing it because it has the potential of wide distribution,” says Bursey.

Other approaches have been taken in the past to deal with syphilis. Posters, flyers, outreach and targeted workshops have all been used to raise awareness in Ottawa in the past year.

“Outreach is good and it’s very effective, but it’s a reactionary approach. Now we’re past reaction, we’re now into proaction. This wellness approach, this holistic approach is very proactive,” remarks Duchesne.

Meanwhile, Gordon says she will closely watch syphilis rates over the next couple of months. Her message is clear. “One needs to be aware of what puts you at risk, and if you think you’re at risk, get tested.”

Read More About:
Health, Sexual Health, Power, Ottawa, HIV/AIDS

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