Love drug: Canadian researchers are working on a syphilis vaccine

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We may be one step closer to getting rid of syphilis as a team of researchers in British Columbia are currently testing a candidate for a syphilis vaccine.

Syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection, can be easily treated with penicillin, according to Health Canada. Despite that, the infection has also seen an increase in numbers in Canada since 2001.

That’s prompted Dr. Caroline Cameron, a professor of microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Victoria, to search for a way to eradicate it.

“We’ve had penicillin since the 1940s, and there’s been no resistance that’s been shown by the pathogen against penicillin, and yet the number of cases are increasing,” Cameron told Global News.

“It’s pretty clear now that just screening and treating is not going to eliminate [syphilis]. So we need some sort of complementary approach in order to eliminate the disease, and that’s vaccination.”

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READ MORE: Syphilis rates highest in 30 years in BC

In a journal article published in early February, Cameron and her team say they have a found a vaccine that has lessened the effect of the disease on rabbits.

They say the vaccine candidate they’ve put forward will need to be refined and optimized before it could be viable.

“We’re just at the beginning of a four-year grant for this, so the idea is that during these four years we will get to the point where [we can] move forward with clinical trials,” Cameron explained.

“We’re probably still 10 years away, I think. But it’s definitely a step closer than what it was before.”

READ MORE: The serious STI complication that can affect your fertility

The safest ways to protect yourself from STIs continues to be practicing safe sex, and talking to your partner about their STI history, Health Canada says.

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Growing numbers across Canada

Health Canada’s latest numbers for syphilis rates across Canada show a dramatic spike, rising from 475 cases in 1998 to 3,266 cases in 2013 — a 687 per cent increase in 15 years.

In B.C. syphilis rates hit a 30-year high last February prompting Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to initiate a “formal outbreak response.”

In Alberta, which is dealing with its own STI crisis, officials pointed to social media and “hook-up” apps to explain the spread of the diseases, but experts say there’s likely more than one reason for the sharp spike in numbers.

READ MORE: Reality check: Do hook-up apps lead to increased STI rates?

“Online dating and the hook-up apps can definitely contribute to increased rates of STIs by making it easier and faster to find sex partners, and it makes the sexual network more connected and more complex,” Dionne Gesink, a social epidemiologist at the University of Toronto told Global News last year.

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*with files from Andrew Russell

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