A syphilis resurgence is hitting the Okanagan, prompting Interior Health to launch a campaign on awareness for the sexually transmitted infection.
Syphilis had been nearly eradicated, but cases in the interior started climbing last year.
Dr. Jonathan Malo with Interior Health says the STI has been “almost completely gone” since war times, which was typically what syphilis was associated with.
Interior Health’s latest numbers show cases across the interior have been climbing, with Kamloops getting hit the worst, where cases quadrupled from 2021 to 2022.
Vernon’s reported cases increased from five in 2021 to 11 in 2022, the Central Okanagan saw an increase from 42 to 54 cases, while Kamloops jumped from 21 reported cases to 84 in 2022.
The growing numbers have prompted Interior Health’s syphilis awareness campaign to alert people to the growing number of cases. The key message, “don’t stress, just test.”
Malo says the resurgence of syphilis in the province started in the Lower Mainland, and the province declared an outbreak in 2019. Now that cases have been spreading IH is urging people to get tested and treated to limit the spread.
Syphilis has different stages of infection, all of which require medical intervention to treat. It’s an easy treatment, says Malo: injections of penicillin.
If caught early, only one treatment is needed, but up to three doses of penicillin could be needed for later stage syphilis.
With early treatment, there’s typically no other health problems from syphilis. But the longer the infection goes untreated, the more dangerous it becomes.
“People can still receive treatments if things progress, then certainly the treatment helps.” Explained Malo.
“There certainly can be some long lasting effects, though, if it does go too long. And progresses, to some of those later stages where it can also affect your nerves and your eyes and your hearts, your liver, as well.”
BC Centre for Disease Control outlines the following risks associated with leaving the infection untreated:
- higher chance of getting and passing HIV
- damage to the brain, heart and other organs in the body
- severe cases of the disease can cause death.
- neurosyphilis, infection of the central nervous system can occur at any stage.
- Symptoms may include headache, dizziness, personality changes, balance problems, dementia, vision changes, hearing loss, numbness or weakness in the legs.
In the first stage of infection people should watch out for painless sores “where syphilis entered the body.” It’s typically in the genitals but could be on lips or mouths as well.
In the next stage a non-itchy rash could develop, you can also get a fever and swollen lymph nodes, and a sore throat. Malo says the symptoms can mimic respiratory or viral illnesses, like fatigue, headaches, muscle aches.
Symptoms can go away on their own, but syphilis is still progressing and spreadable.
“In recent years, over half of the cases that we have actually picked up, have been people in that stage of not having symptoms.” Malo said.
That’s why it’s important for all sexually active people to get tests, even if they don’t have symptoms.
People can speak to their usual health care provider to be tested.