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Canada has seen a sharp rise in babies being born with syphilis, with nearly a 1,300 per cent increase in cases over a four-year period.
According to statistics from the Public Health Agency of Canada, there were seven confirmed cases of early congenital syphilis in 2017. But that number rose to 96 cases in 2021 — a jump of 1,271 per cent.
It's an issue that's related to an uptick of syphilis cases amongst Canadian adults. In 2021, there were 11,268 infectious syphilis cases reported across the country, for a rate of 30 cases per 100,000 people. That's 166 per cent higher than the rate in 2017.
From 2017 to 2019, the national rate of infectious syphilis grew by 116 per cent. Between 2020 and 2021, it grew by 20 per cent.
In Canada, the country's syphilis rate for women was 729 per cent higher in 2021 compared to 2017. Among men, the 2021 rate was 96 per cent higher than in 2017.
Experts share that the rise in syphilis could be attributed to multiple factors, including people having more access to routine testing. It could also be due to a lack of people having protected sex, where a McMaster University study from 2020 showed that 7 out of 10 Canadians don't use condoms.
Untreated syphilis cases can cause major health issues for one person, but if someone is pregnant, it can also have devastating affects on their baby.
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by Treponema pallidum, a bacterium only transmitted among humans.
It's an STI that can be contracted through vaginal, anal and oral sex, as well as through sharing sex toys. While donated blood is screened for syphilis in Canada, the STI can also be transmitted through blood transfusion where screening is omitted.
It's also possible for a developing fetus to contract syphilis through their mother's placenta, or for a baby who comes into contact with lesions or fluids during childbirth.
What about congenital syphilis?
If a pregnant person with syphilis leaves their infection untreated, it can cause issues such as miscarriage, pre-term birth, stillbirth or neonatal death. It can also lead to congenital syphilis, which means the STI was passed down from mother to child.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), babies born with congenital syphilis can experience problems like:
Severe anemia (low blood count)
Enlarged liver and spleen
Brain and nerve issues, like blindness or deafness
What are the symptoms of syphilis?
It's possible that someone carrying syphilis doesn't present any symptoms. However, it's still possible that they can continue spreading the STI.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) indicates that if left untreated, syphilis typically moves through four stages. However, some of the symptoms can occur at any point, including:
Coordination or balance problems
Hearing loss or ringing in the ears
Memory loss, personality changes (dementia)
Symptoms of the first stage of syphilis can include swollen glands in the groin or the neck. Usually, a sore or ulcer that's firm, round and painless — called a chancre — will form where ever syphilis entered a person's body. Oftentimes, the chancre is invisible and painless and it will heal even without treatment. Even if the sore goes away, treatment is still required to prevent syphilis from moving to the next stage.
Syphilis will typically enter its second stage within two to 12 weeks after exposure. Symptoms, which are often mild and can be confused for another issue, include:
Patchy hair loss
Swollen glands in the groin or neck
White, wart-like sores called condylomata lata
Rashes, usually on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet, that are typically rough and non-itchy
If still untreated, syphilis will enter its third stage, where symptoms might not be noticeable for up to 20 years. The PHAC states that it's divided into two stages, early and late.
Early: Someone without symptoms who has had syphilis for less than 12 months. They're still able to transmit the STI to others.
Late: Someone without symptoms who has had syphilis for more than 12 months. Usually, they can no longer transmit the STI.
The CDC indicates that most people with untreated syphilis won't see the STI enter the fourth stage. But when it does happen, the disease can affect organ systems such as the heart and blood vessels, as well as the brain and nervous system.
This stage would occur between 10 and 30 years after becoming infected, and it typically leads to death.
How can you prevent syphilis?
The only way to not get syphilis and other STIs is by avoiding oral, vaginal and anal sex.
If you're sexually active, you can lower your chances of contracting syphilis by remaining in a monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested for the STI, or by properly using condoms and dental dams.
Testing is an important part of preventing the spread of STIs. Getting checked for syphilis is as easy as getting a blood test, or getting any sores or rashes swabbed.
Currently, there is no vaccine for syphilis and there's a lack of research.
How is syphilis treated?
Luckily, syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, which are typically injected. The earlier treatment is started, the better.
Even if you've been treated for syphilis, that doesn't mean you're immune. It's possible to contract the STI more than once.
If you're receiving treatment for syphilis, be sure you follow your health care provider's instructions and follow-up care. It's also important that you avoid sexual contact until completing your antibiotic treatment and being told by your health care provider that the infection is gone.