Syphilis, a major killer in Europe during the Renaissance, virtually disappeared with the discovery of penicillin in the early 1940s.
Infections are spread by oral, genital, and anal contact. Despite the fact that this horrible infection is easily preventable and treatable today, the number of cases is soaring across Canada and all over the developed world.
Alberta’s Minister of Health has declared a province-wide emergency since the number of syphilis infections there has reached levels not seen since 1948. In 2018, in Manitoba, the cases of syphilis hit a record high when they increased by 212% to 791 cases. In 2018, in Ontario, 1800 cases were reported and Quebec had 938 cases last year – an increase of 187% (in 1998 Quebec had only 3 cases of syphilis).
If left untreated, syphilis can cause tissue damage and serious damage to the organs, including the eyes, skin, bones, liver, kidneys and heart. If syphilis infects the brain, it can cause personality changes and cognitive impairment.
Two groups in particular are facing a high-risk of contacting syphilis. They are indigenous communities and homosexuals. This is perhaps because these populations have smaller sexual networks and the infection spreads within the group.
There is a variety of theories as to why syphilis infections are now out of control. These include the popularity of hook-up apps, such as Grindr and Tinder; condom fatigue; the reduced fear of HIV resulting in decreased use of condoms; and increased sexual promiscuity under the influence of the pervasive use of alcohol and party drugs.
In other words, there seems to be a complex intermingling of factors causing soaring syphilis rates, including the fact that the transmission rate of syphilis is 60% per contact, compared to 2% per contact for HIV.
Another problem is that while effective treatment is available, it is hindered by the fact that detecting syphilis requires a blood test, which is not always offered by health facilities.
According to James Blanchard, an epidemiologist and public health specialist at the University of Manitoba, “Something categorically different is happening and that’s why we have an outbreak. It’s beyond the types of increases we were seeing over the past decade or so, this is something new.” He then goes on to say, “A lot more has to be done systematically to study the huge increase in syphilis infections.”
That certainly is an understatement.