'Plenty of Syph' campaign raises controversy

Published: June 21, 2011

A new Alberta syphilis-awareness campaign that parodies online dating websites – and the people who use them – has been slammed by critics as stigmatizing people with sexually transmitted infections (STI) and unlikely to promote behaviour change.
Alberta has the nation’s highest rates of syphilis, which is relatively easy to treat effectively in places where there is adequate testing, treatment and education. The number of Albertan infections has climbed steadily every year since 2002.
A previous education campaign in 2008 was cancelled by Alberta Health Minister Ron Liepert, who told a government committee the problem was caused by people with “careless attitudes” as well as an increase in the number of sex workers.
The Plenty of Syph website features mock sex ads from people with syphilis making statements such as “What’s a dick sore here or there if you’re still getting laid?” Conceived and executed by ad agency Calder Bateman as part of a $2-million program by Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Alberta Health and Wellness (AHW), the campaign also includes mass-media advertising, posters in bars across the province and online promotion on Twitter (@PlentyOfSyph).
“We needed to take a totally different approach to reach internet-savvy 16- to 24-year-olds, who are at high risk for STIs,” says AHW’s Micky Elabdi. But youth exposed to the campaign – which consists of profiles of people with syphilis chancres on their faces and bodies who reject condoms and don’t care if they infect others – may not get the right message prevention experts say.

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