Syphilis infection rate jumps in B.C., prompting call for testing and treatment

VANCOUVER — The rate of syphilis infection in British Columbia is the highest it’s been in 30 years and the provincial health officer is asking the public to get proactive about testing and treatment.

Figures from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) show there were 919 new cases of syphilis reported in 2018, a 33 per cent jump from the year before and many of those infections occurred in gay and bisexual men.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, says after watching rates decrease for several years, they’re now climbing again and they’re working to raise awareness that people need to be tested.

There has also been an increase in cases among women, prompting the province to temporarily change syphilis screening during pregnancy to add a second test near delivery in addition to the routine test in the first trimester.

Untreated infection during pregnancy can lead to premature birth, low birth weight, long-term neurological issues, deafness or even stillbirth.

A syphilis outbreak was declared in Alberta in July as health officials recorded a 187 per cent increase from 2017 to 2018, and rates in Saskatchewan and Manitoba also jumped during the same period.

“Possibly related to increase in testing is one factor,” says Dr. Mark Gilbert with the BCCDC. “It may also be related to changes in sexual behaviour. Whether that’s due to things like technology around like dating apps, for example, are ways of facilitating people meeting new sex partners.”

Gilbert says most patients are gay and bisexual men, but cases reported by women between 15 and 49 years old are up nearly 40 per cent.

“Those are trends that are of concern because, particularly during pregnancy, if syphilis is acquired, it can be passed to an infant and cause congenital syphilis which can have some pretty serious health consequences,” he says.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can be cured with antibiotics, but if left untreated, can lead to serious complications including damage to the brain, heart and other organs.

Infections can have no symptoms so a person may not know they have syphilis, or they may find a hard, painless sore near the point of contact or develop a rash, swelling of the glands, hair loss or fatigue.

A person can contract syphilis through oral, vaginal and anal sex or close skin-to-skin contact with a syphilis lesion or rash.

“What we’re seeing in B.C. is not unique to B.C., so these trends in syphilis are seen in other parts of Canada and North America and often in other parts of the world, as well, but it is something that we feel the need to make sure that we raise awareness and encourage people to get tested,” Gilbert says.

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