Syphilis outbreak and linked HIV cases worry Eastern Health

Josh Pennell
Published on March 17, 2015
Dr. David Allison

A shocking rise in the number of syphilis cases in eastern Newfoundland has Eastern Health taking steps to get a handle on the outbreak.

In a Tuesday news release, Eastern Health made a public advisory about an outbreak of infectious syphilis in the eastern region.


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A total of 26 cases of syphilis were confirmed by Eastern Health in 2014, and as of March 11, 2015, there have already been 15 new confirmed cases.

“If that continues it’s really going to reach into the sky with the numbers,” Dr. David Allison, Medical Officer of Health for Eastern Health, told The Telegram.

Ten years ago, Allison says, they were seeing two to four cases annually.

“The difference between then and now is actually almost astronomical.”

Syphilis can cause serious and permanent damage to the body if untreated. It may first appear 10 to 90 days after infection, with the average period of time being 21 days. It’s a bacterial infection contracted through unprotected anal, vaginal or oral sex.

Eastern Health says the majority of the most recent syphilis cases have been identified in men between the ages of 20 and 49 years old who have had sex with other men.

“Part of the concern is that this could get into the heterosexual population and become more widespread,” Allison says.

That would lead to a scenario where infants could become infected at birth.

The health issue doesn’t stop with just syphilis. Among the 41 cases of syphilis diagnosed between Jan. 1, 2014 and March 11, 2015, 10 have been co-infected with HIV.

“The challenge with this is syphilis makes it easier to transmit HIV,” Allison says.

The initial stages of syphilis result in a genital ulcer that makes it easier for HIV to be transmitted.

Along with contacting people who have been in contact with those infected, Eastern Health is also looking at working with community groups to get messages out about safe sex and risky behaviour — best practices for which people may have become complacent about.

In response, the Communicable Disease Control Program at Eastern Health will increase sexual health clinics for testing, treatment and followup.

“We’d like to see individuals come forward and get treated,” Allison says. “Syphilis is easily treated. HIV is not so easily treated. But it is important to control.”

For more information, people can call 709-752-4358 or 1-877-752-4358 (toll free) from Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Things to watch for

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

· fatigue, and/or

· a rash on the chest, back, palms and bottoms of feet.