A total of 1,546 cases of infectious syphilis has been reported in 2018, according to a report published by the Alberta government, making it the highest number recorded since 1948. The numbers have prompted the province’s chief medical officer of health to declare a provincial outbreak.
Furthermore, the medical team from Alberta reported that the 2018 statistics is a sharp increase since there were only 161 cases back in 2014.
“This is not just a small fluctuation; this is a significant change in a single year. And it’s getting worse. We’re expecting even higher rates in 2019,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer, said at a news conference Tuesday to address the outbreak.
In the Central Zone, there were 88 cases of syphilis in 2018, an increase of 266.7 percent compared to 2017.
Meanwhile, in the Edmonton area, there were a staggering 977 reported cases of infectious syphilis in 2018, an increase of 305 percent compared to 2017, which officers also deem as the center of the outbreak comprising over half of the total reported cases in the province, according to Alberta Health.
“It is vitally important that everyone who is sexually active in Alberta take responsibility for having safer sex and get tested, especially if you have new or multiple partners,” said Dr. Laura McDougall, senior medical officer of health at Alberta Health Services.
Planned Parenthood defines syphilis as a prevalent sexually transmitted disease. Moreover, it can spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Syphilis causes sores on your genitals called chancres, in which is the disease’s way of transmission to an uninfected individual. The lesions are usually painless, but they can quickly spread the infection to other people.
Mainly, syphilis is a disease that is easily treated. In specific, primary and secondary syphilis are easy to manage with a penicillin injection. Penicillin is one of the most widely used antibiotics and is usually effective in treating syphilis. For people who are allergic to penicillin, a different medicine such as doxycycline can be administered. However, infectious syphilis that is remained untreated can lead to serious long-term health complications.
Another risk factor that people should watch out for is congenital syphilis. This can occur when a child is born to a mother with syphilis, which can result in severe, disabling, and life-threatening disease for the child.
While congenital syphilis cases were rare before the outbreak, there were 22 congenital syphilis cases between 2014 and 2018, one of which was stillborn. Of those, 13 were reported in the Edmonton area, eight in 2018 alone.
“We need to emphasize for all Albertans: sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a risk to anyone [who is] sexually active, particularly people who have new sex partners and are not using protection,” said Hinshaw.
For syphilis, there are not always symptoms in the early stages; it can present as a painless ulcer, progress to general symptoms like a fever, and even lead to eye problems or dementia in late stages. That is why, if there is the slightest doubt that a person is infected, it is always wise to visit a doctor and get a test.
“Sexual health is an important part of overall health,” said Dr. Laura McDougall, said. “We are working with community partners to remove the stigma and increase awareness about STI testing services throughout Alberta. If you are sexually active, make regular STI testing part of your health routine.”
In general, young people between the ages of 15 to 29 are most at risk, but all ages are represented in rates of reported cases, said Hinshaw. Common challenges such as homelessness could also be risk factors, but the stigma following a positive test result for STI is also another problem that Alberta Health has noted.
As of the moment, a provincial outbreak coordination committee composed of Alberta Health, Alberta Health Services (AHS) and other rural health officials has been activated. The province says that over the next three months, the committee will develop a coordinated strategy and determine concrete actions to increase STI testing, promote public awareness and reduce the overall number of syphilis cases in Alberta.
“This is a trend that [we see] across Canada and the world. The question of exactly why – there’s not one single factor. When an infection gets into a network of people, it can spread quite quickly. It’s hard to understand why it is higher at the moment in Edmonton and the north than in Calgary,” said Hinshaw.
Health officials say correct and consistent condom use is essential in protecting against STIs. Health experts recommend sexually active people, regardless of gender, age, or sexual orientation, get tested every three to six months if they:
- Have a sexual partner with a known STI
- Have a new sexual partner or multiple or anonymous sexual partners
- Have the previous history of an STI diagnosis
- Have been sexually assaulted