The Population Health division of Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living reports an outbreak of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection that can be shared between sexual partners, throughout the province.
Syphilis is known as the ‘great imitator’ because of the wide range of symptoms that infected individuals may develop. These symptoms can be confused with other conditions or diseases. Pregnant women can pass on the infection to their unborn baby during pregnancy or childbirth. This is called congenital syphilis and may lead to birth defects or stillbirth.
The number of cases diagnosed in pregnant women continues to rise. More than 10 infants have been treated for congenital syphilis in the last six months, and a lack of prenatal care and substance use have been identified as factors in these cases.
The majority of congenital syphilis cases have been reported in the Northern Health region and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, but the risk is high across the province.
Multiple Canadian provinces, including Alberta, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, have reported congenital syphilis cases in recent years. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States is reporting the highest rates of congenital syphilis cases in decades.
There has been an ongoing syphilis outbreak in Manitoba since 2014. Recently, syphilis infections have increasingly occurred between heterosexual partners. This means that women who are infected with syphilis in pregnancy and are not adequately treated can pass the infection on to an unborn child.
There are tests to determine if a person, including a pregnant woman or a newborn, has syphilis. Syphilis and congenital syphilis can be prevented by practicing safe sex and proper prenatal testing. Syphilis and congenital syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. The earlier women are tested and treated during their pregnancy, the less likely an unborn child will be severely affected.
The province urges all women to seek regular prenatal medical care and to receive at least one test for syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections. If a pregnant woman or her partner engage in sexual practices such as having multiple sexual partners or sex without barrier protection, or use intravenous drugs, more frequent testing is recommended because the risk of syphilis and congenital syphilis is much higher.
Manitoba Health, seniors and Active Living is actively engaged in a province-wide response to the current outbreak of syphilis. More information is available here.
Any individuals concerned about a syphilis infection should seek testing from their health-care provider.