The rate of syphilis in BC is on the rise and health authorities are reminding British Columbians to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), especially those with new sexual partners, or people who are pregnant.
There were 919 new cases of infectious syphilis in B.C. in 2018, a rate of 18.4 per 100,000. This is a 33 per cent increase from 2017.
In B.C., the majority of infections occur in gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.
While syphilis continues to disproportionately affect gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men in B.C., infections are also increasing among women. There has been a nearly 40 per cent increase of infectious syphilis among women 15 to 49 years old from 2017 to 2018, according to BC Centre for Disease Control.
Syphilis is an infection that can be acquired through oral, vaginal and anal sexual contact with a person who has infectious syphilis or skin-to-skin contact with a syphilis lesion (chancre) or rash. It can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to their unborn child in pregnancy or during childbirth.
In response to the increase in cases among women, B.C. has implemented a temporary change to syphilis screening guidelines during pregnancy. In addition to the routine screening, it now recommended that all pregnant individuals get tested again around the time of delivery.
Treating those infected with syphilis during pregnancy helps prevent congenital syphilis, where the infection is passed from the mother to the baby during pregnancy or delivery. If left untreated, syphilis during pregnancy can lead to premature birth, low birth weight, long-term neurological issues, bone deformities, deafness, or even stillbirth.
After many years of no cases of congenital syphilis in the province, B.C. identified two cases in 2019.
Many Canadian provinces are experiencing significant increases in syphilis and some are also responding to increases in congenital syphilis. Alberta and Manitoba have reported over 10 cases of congenital syphilis each in the last year, and also recommend prenatal syphilis screening to include testing at delivery.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can be cured with antibiotics. If left untreated, syphilis can lead to serious complications including damage to the brain, heart and other organs, and can be associated with a greater risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV. A blood test will diagnose a syphilis infection.