Syphilis rates in B.C. reached their highest point in more than three decades in 2018 and continue to climb, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).
There were 919 cases across the province last year, a 33 per cent increase over 2017, and up from a low of 154 cases in 2010.
“After seeing syphilis infections decrease for several years, rates of syphilis began to climb again earlier this decade,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer.
“We’ve been working to address syphilis in B.C. and raise awareness about testing among men who have sex with men. We are currently working with our partners to see what more we can do to reduce the number of infections but we also need the public to be aware of the risk and to be proactive about testing and treatment.”
In B.C., the majority of infections occur in gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, but 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.
Dr. Mark Gilbert of the BCCDC says people with syphilis often don’t have symptoms and so don’t realize they have it.
“That’s why we’re really thinking about what can we do to renew our efforts around preventing syphilis in the province and getting those numbers lower,” Gilbert said.
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. Syphilis can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to their unborn child in pregnancy or during childbirth.
The infection is easily treatable through an injection of penicillin, but if left untreated, it can lead to brain and heart damage or even death.
Dr. Gilbert says it’s hard to tell why the numbers in B.C. continue to rise, but said it could be due to increased testing or a change in sexual behaviour.
The trend is concurrent with statistics showing a rise in syphilis across the country.
The Office of the Provincial Health Officer and the BCCDC are reminding British Columbians to speak with their health care professional about testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), especially those with new sexual partners, or people who are pregnant.
With files from CBC