Los Angeles County Health Officials Fear Gay Festival Will Contribute to Syphilis Spread
Los Angeles County public health officials and some gay community leaders have expressed concern that this weekend's White Party -- an annual spring gathering in Palm Springs attended by about 30,000 gay men -- could contribute to a recent syphilis epidemic in the area, the Los Angeles Times reports. Over the past two years, the number of syphilis and other sexually transmitted disease cases in the Palm Springs area and throughout California has risen "dramatically," driven "almost exclusively" by men who have sex with men, according to the Times. Last year, the number of new syphilis cases in California nearly doubled to 1,035, and Los Angeles County reported 362 new cases, up from 199 in 2001. According to preliminary figures, San Francisco recorded 316 new cases last year, more than double its figure for the previous year. However, Palm Springs, which is "far smaller" than either Los Angeles or San Francisco, has in the past year developed one of the highest syphilis per capita rates in the country, according to the Times. In January, the California Department of Health Services issued an alert warning health officials nationwide of the Palm Springs problem and asking other agencies to report syphilis cases among people who had recently traveled to the area. According to the Times, the "most worrisome" aspect of the syphilis epidemic is that it signals a trend toward unsafe sex that could lead to the spread of other STDs such as HIV, and many men diagnosed with syphilis are also HIV-positive.
White Party STD Prevention Efforts
"We're nervous that [partygoers are] going to take [syphilis] there and we're nervous that they're going to bring it home," Dr. Peter Kerndt, director of STD control in Los Angeles County, said. Public health officials and festival organizers at the White Party are planning to distribute information about syphilis prevention, symptoms and treatment and information about safer sex, and hotels and bars in the area plan to distribute condoms and lubricant to aid in the prevention effort, according to the Times. White Party founder Jeffrey Sanker said, "The safety and comfort of my patrons is my number one priority," adding, "The continued risk of HIV infection as well as the recent outbreak of syphilis cases in the Palm Springs area are both issues we certainly cannot ignore." Sanker has donated 10,000 condoms and tubes of lubricant to the prevention efforts, matching a contribution by the Desert AIDS Project, which is also helping to distribute educational materials at the party (Ornstein/Sahagun, Los Angeles Times, 4/18).