Public health officials concerned syphilis outbreak could spread to women

HALIFAX – Public health officials are keeping a close eye on Halifax’s syphilis outbreak, which they say could be expanding its reach of just men.

Dr. Robin Taylor, the medical officer of health for Capital Health, said Halifax is in its fifth year of the outbreak but there are worries the sexually transmitted infection (STI) may be moving to another group: women.

“We’re concerned. We’re measuring [it] … so we know if we are supporting the groups that are most at risk. At this point in time, we are watching carefully to see if more women are going to be infected with syphilis,” she said.

Taylor said public health officials are basing their judgments on previous syphilis outbreaks in Canada.

READ MORE: Would you take an STI test to get bonus points in class?

“The way syphilis outbreaks develop is they may start in one segment of the population, like ours, only infecting men, and then you’ll see them spread to affect more of the population so women would become more involved.”

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The public health official said several cases of syphilis in women in the Halifax have been recorded. She said it is a small part of the outbreak but it holds lots of unease.

“We’re concerned enough that it’s happened in other places that we need to … pay really close attention here and be hopefully one step ahead,” she said.

Taylor said pregnant women who contract syphilis could give birth to babies with congenital syphilis.

The rates of STIs in the university population are much higher than the general public, Taylor said.

Third-year Dalhousie student Kirsten Smith said it boils down to being safe and careful.

“Everyone’s got to be careful. It’s definitely something nobody wants to get,” she said.

“I’m a very safe person and it’s just not something I worry about. But I’m sure some young women … it could be something they think about. It depends on their lives and their activities and how they practice safe sex.”

Taylor adds that testing and treatment of syphilis in men has increased since Capital Health rolled out a campaign targeting the STI last year. An evaluation of the campaign will take place at the end of the month.

“We’re going to talk about the numbers of our outbreak, what things look like now and what our next steps will be at that point in time.”

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Taylor also urges regular STI testing and has other suggestions for staying safe.

“There are ways to reduce your risk. Condoms are definitely part of that. Regular health checkups and talking to your partners about STIs before you engage in sexual activity [so you’re] being responsible for your health and that way contributing to the health of others.”


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