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The Globe and Mail

Alberta's syphilis PSA sparks controversy

Meet RunwayGal21. She's 21, interested in men and from Fort McMurray, Alta. According to her tag line, she "wanna give u my flaming hot symptoms". Her ideal first date includes "the horizontal mambo."

Oh, and she's a fictional character created by the government of Alberta.

The province has recently launched a sexual health public service announcement that has taken on the form of a parodied online dating site called plentyoffish.com.

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On the site, plentyofsyph.com, users can sift through dozens of outrageous profiles of syphilis victims - complete with gory descriptions of their symptoms. Like a real online dating site, each profile has information on the eligible single's likes and dislikes as well as the stage of their sexually transmitted disease.

The campaign has sparked controversy in and outside of Canada. Salon writer Tracy Clark-Flory argues that this campaign harks back to the dark ages of sexual education by using fear tactics . She also adds it paints a stigmatizing picture of people who live with syphilis, quite literally since most of the profile pictures of users include grape-sized sores on their faces.

But there is another fundamental problem with the campaign. The important information - like what are syphilis symptoms and how can they be treated - is buried deep within the site. You have to actually try to contact a user. And given the complete ridiculousness of the profiles, there is little to no chance of this happening sincerely.

But let's suppose someone is genuinely interested in one of the users and initiates contact. Suddenly a stunningly condescending message pops up, like: "Doing the nasty could mean getting something nasty, like a juicy syph sore popping up on your pretty face."

Even then, the important health information does not show up. You have continue clicking to get to it.

While the detail of the parody is laudable, it seems to muddy the whole point of a public service announcement, which is to educate people on important social topics.

Obviously, sexual health is an important issue but one question that has yet to be addressed is: why syphilis? Syphilis is not only treatable but also a largely uncommon sexually transmitted infection in Canada.

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There were only 1,683 reported cases of syphilis in Canada in 2009. Compare that to the 11,178 cases of gonorrhea found in the same year. Or 11,357 cases of hepatitis C.

Do you think this sexual health PSA is effective?

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About the Author

Madeleine White is the Assistant National Editor for The Globe and Mail. She has been with the Globe since 2011 and previously worked in the Globe's Video and Features departments, covering topics ranging from fitness and health to real estate to indigenous education. More

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