"We certainly have been experiencing higher levels of syphilis in the gay and bisexual population, but this is by far the most significant increase in the last several years," says Kip Beardsley, director of sexually transmitted diseases at the Minnnesota Department of Health. "It's something that's happening in major metro areas all across the county in this population as well."
The overwhelming majority of gay men in Minnesota diagnosed with syphilis (some 95 percent) lived in the Twin Cities. They ranged in age from 18 to 61. Many of them reported using the internet to locate sexual partners.
Most disturbingly, 37 percent of the gay men testing positive for syphilis were also infected with HIV. Because syphilis infection often results in open sores, it makes HIV transmission more likely. "It creates a point of entry for the HIV virus," says Beardsley. "It increases the efficiency of HIV transmission."
Bob Tracy, director of development at the Minnesota AIDS Project, says that use of crystal meth is also leading gay men to engage in risky sex practices. "That's kind of an emerging element of this," he says.
The Red Door Clinic in Minneapolis has been given a $75,000 grant by the state health department in order to do syphilis prevention work. The program will include expanded testing opportunities and online outreach.
But Tracy worries that effective outreach work will be hampered by attacks from conservative critics. Last year Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Delano) introduced a measure that would have stripped Minnesota AIDS Project of all funding because he was offended by the group's sexually explicit prevention materials.
"Rather than be able to use effective strategies that we know change behavior," he says, "we're in an environment where we're being told that we should not being doing the things that we know are effective."