Putting a stop to syphilis

You may have seen our recent ads in the Philadelphia Gay News, or posters that are starting to appear around town. Mazzoni Center has joined with the Health Department of Philadelphia to provide syphilis testing and raise awareness about syphilis through a program called "The Syphilis Elimination Project."

According to a national survey of high school youth, Philadelphia has the highest number of youth who have ever been sexually active, the highest number who became sexually active before age 13, and the highest number of youth who have had four or more sexual partners.  Yet we have one of the lowest numbers of youth who report using a condom.  The rate of STIs (sexually transmitted infections) among youth aged 15-19 in Philadelphia is three times the national average. 

“Because of the recent information regarding the high numbers of youth being infected with STIs in Philadelphia, we decided on going with a campaign that was fun, eye catching, and informative, especially for youth,” says Director of Prevention Services Eric Paulukonis. 

Thanks to funding from the health department, our Prevention staff, led by Community Health Engagement Manager Vince Du, has collaborated with graphic designer Cristian Morales to produce the eye-catching posters, along with a series of print and digital ads to help get the word out.  While the main focus is on youth, Paulukonis says the ads have been appealing to “multiple audiences,” which is an added bonus. 

“Our incidence numbers of syphilis cases in Philadelphia are high,” he explains.  “It could be because community members are not hearing the messages, perhaps due to message fatigue, or simply not understanding that any person who is sexually active can contract syphilis.”

Whatever the reason, he says, “it’s clear that these messages are not reaching everyone.”  Based on the latest statistics, youth are a particular concern. 

“It is imperative to continuously remind Philadelphia that syphilis is very much still here, that sexually active individuals should get tested every three to six months, and that you don't always know if you have it,” Paulukonis says. 

Syphilis-related posters will be produced and distributed throughout the city. Mazzoni Center’s ‘Get Real’ project also plans to release a story about syphilis testing later this summer. And Paulukonis adds: “the Prevention Department will continue to conduct street outreach, internet outreach and smartphone outreach to increase awareness.  We’re also developing a more direct and educational ad to be posted through various media outlets.”

Get the facts:  Syphilis is often referred to by health providers as the “great masquerader” because its symptoms often resemble something else. The infection develops in stages, each with a different set of symptoms. 

To learn more about how syphilis is transmitted, what the symptoms looks like, and how to protect yourself, click here.

Get tested: syphilis and other STI screenings are offered at the Washington West Project (1201 Locust Street) on a drop-in basis Mondays through Saturdays, and will be offered on our mobile testing unit at community events throughout the summer.