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Festival Is Called Syphilis Threat

Officials fear outbreak from annual party in Palm Springs. Expected are 30,000 gay revelers.

April 18, 2003|Charles Ornstein and Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writers

With 30,000 gay revelers expected for this weekend's "White Party" in Palm Springs -- a festival famous for sex and substance abuse -- public health officials and some gay leaders worry openly that it will fan an epidemic of syphilis.

"We're nervous that they're going to take it there, and we're nervous that they're going to bring it home," said Dr. Peter Kerndt, director of sexually transmitted disease control in Los Angeles County.

They have reason to be nervous. For the last two years, cases of the sexually transmitted disease have risen dramatically in the Palm Springs area and throughout the state, driven almost exclusively by gay and bisexual men. Outbreaks have sometimes been fueled by large gatherings, beginning with millennium celebrations in Los Angeles in 2000.

Statewide, the number of new infectious syphilis cases nearly doubled last year, to 1,035. Los Angeles County reported 362 cases, up from 199 a year earlier. San Francisco logged 316 cases, more than two times the 2001 tally, according to preliminary estimates. But Palm Springs, which is far smaller than either metropolitan area, has in one year developed one of the highest per capita rates of syphilis in the nation.

Riverside County in 2002 reported 54 new infectious syphilis cases -- 48 of them in the eastern part of the county that includes Palm Springs. The entire county reported only 17 cases of infectious syphilis a year earlier, said Barbara Cole, director of disease control for Riverside County.

The California Department of Health Services issued an alert in late January warning health authorities nationwide of the Palm Springs problem and asking them to report syphilis cases among people who recently traveled to the area. In part, the upsurge can be traced to the area's growing popularity among gay men for retirement and recreation.

"The disease is spreading dramatically here," said Robert Farrell, director of medical services at the Desert AIDS Project.

Syphilis, though easily treatable with antibiotics, can lead to blindness, neurological problems and even death if left untreated. But the disease is most worrisome, in the near term, for what it signifies: a breakdown in safe-sex practices that can lead to other sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

Many men with syphilis already are co-infected with HIV. In San Francisco and Los Angeles counties, at least half of those testing positive for syphilis are HIV-positive. Moreover, the sores caused by syphilis facilitate transmission of the AIDS virus.

Public health officials hope that by promoting syphilis prevention and testing at the 14th annual White Party, they will reach men at risk for HIV or those who have the virus but don't know it.

Volunteers are distributing laminated wallet-sized cards warning, "Check him out! Syphilis is spreading rapidly among gay men in the Coachella Valley. The increase in cases is dramatic and is impacting the health of individuals who are infected."

The reverse side of the cards includes information about symptoms, prevention strategies and treatment.

In addition, hotels and bars are being asked to distribute condoms and lubricant, which helps prevent condoms from breaking, Cole said.

White Party founder Jeffrey Sanker -- whose Web site touting the event contains many photos of muscular, shirtless men -- said he is working with local health officials and volunteers to promote safer sex.

"The safety and comfort of my patrons is my No. 1 priority," Sanker said. "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."

The event takes its name from the color white, which organizers said symbolizes the renewal of the spring season. Partygoers are charged $250 for access to all weekend parties or $400 for a "Titanium" pass that admits them to VIP lounges.

The main event is held Saturday night at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Last year, pop and movie star Jennifer Lopez and her dance troupe made a surprise appearance. The party continues Sunday morning at the Wyndham hotel with an event called "Climax After Hours."

Desert AIDS Project officials said Sanker has donated 10,000 condoms and tubes of lubricant -- matching the agency's contribution.

Two weeks ago, a Desert AIDS Project official said Sanker could do more to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. But John Brown, the group's executive director, said this week, "I haven't perceived him [Sanker] as being an obstacle."

He added that gay-oriented events should not be expected to meet a higher standard than other spring break gatherings.

Some White Party veterans said they are aware of the risks, and they take precautions.

"I've been to the White Party many times," said Riverside businessman Darren Conkerite, 36. "You need to be safe ... but that shouldn't take away from the fun."

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