Despite prominent awareness campaigns in some of Toronto’s gay sex hotspots, local syphilis rates have continued to rise. At least one local AIDS organizations says it’s time for bathhouse owners to step up and start protecting the men who use their facilities.
In 2002 there were a total of 195 reported cases of syphilis in Toronto, a number high enough that health professionals were calling it a major syphilis outbreak. That number climbed to 327 in 2003. The latest stats indicate that at the end of 2004, there were 353 reported cases of syphilis in Toronto, the majority of those infections found in gay men.
While syphilis is not restricted to bathhouse users, Maxwell says that when transmission is as easy as unprotected oral sex, the tubs play a part.
“One of the things we did [in partnership] with the Hassle Free Clinic was to actually offer syphilis testing clinics in bathhouses,” says John Maxwell, director of communications and community education at ACT. “So there were schedules and men knew that if they were in the bathhouse they could actually get their test done.”
Some bathhouse owners have welcomed the testing campaigns, and even signed a nonbinding statement that states they care about the health of their clients and are willing to work with local agencies to make their premises safer. But other bathhouses have not been so cooperative. Others allow health workers onto their premises, but haven’t signed the agreement. And others are inconsistent in providing condoms.
“That’s frustrating when we know that HIV continues to go up amongst gay men and when we see syphilis and when there are other sexually transmitted infections,” says Maxwell.