Public health officials have declared a provincial outbreak of syphilis after an increase in cases in 2019, according to a statement released by the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) on Monday.
Syphilis is a bacterial sexually transmitted infection (STI) contracted through unprotected anal, oral or vaginal sex. It can cause serious and permanent damage to the body if untreated.
According to the NSHA, preliminary data recorded 82 cases in Nova Scotia in 2019. That compares to approximately 50 cases in 2018 and 38 cases in 2017. The cases to date have been diagnosed in people ages 20 to 65 across the province.
NSHA also stated there appeared to be an increasing proportion of cases among women (20 per cent) in 2019, compared to 10 per cent in 2018 and five per cent in 2017.
“Safer sex practices and getting tested for syphilis can help decrease the number of syphilis cases we are seeing in Nova Scotia currently,” Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, Nova Scotia’s deputy medical officer of health, said in a media release. “Knowing your status for sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, is really important for our health and also the health of others.”
Symptoms of syphilis may first appear 10 to 90 days after a person becomes infected, with the average period of time being 21 days. While some people may not experience any symptoms, syphilis can produce different symptoms at each stage of infection, including:
- an open sore at the point of infection (genital area, anus, mouth or lips)
- flu-like illness
- muscle aches and pains
- a rash on the chest, back, palms of hands and bottoms of feet
Syphilis is treatable with antibiotics. Later stages of syphilis can cause serious impact on the brain, heart and other organs, or even death.
Safe sex practices, including the use of condoms and oral dams for each sexual interaction, can help prevent syphilis. Unprotected sexual contact increases the risk of contracting syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections.
In order to prevent congenital syphilis, which is an infection in unborn babies or newborns that can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or birth defects, NSHA said the province’s public health and reproductive care program recommends that doctors now test for syphilis twice during pregnancy.
“This second test, completed at 24 to 28 weeks, will complement the routine syphilis screening that takes place early in pregnancy,” NSHA stated.
To date, there have been no reported cases of congenital syphilis in Nova Scotia.
READ MORE: Can you have an STI and a safe pregnancy?
A syphilis outbreak was declared in the Halifax area in 2009, hitting a peak in 2013 with 84 cases that year. The Public Health Agency of Canada has put a syphilis outbreak investigation co-ordination committee in place to inform surveillance and outbreak control measures across the country, which may inform additional protection measures and recommendations.
For now, Watson-Creed said, it’s most important that people know the signs and symptoms of syphilis, use protection for sexual activity and get tested for syphilis and other STIs if they are at risk.
“Being informed, taking action and protecting yourself are the best steps right now,” he said.
For questions about syphilis, NSHA recommends people contact their health-care provider or local public health office.
Nova Scotians can also call 811 for non-emergency health advice from a registered nurse.
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