Health authorities in Alberta say they hope syphilis rates have plateaued following a rise in cases and the deaths of five babies over the last three years who were born with the disease.

The western province recorded 218 cases of the sexually transmitted disease in 2006, and 250 in 2007 — many of them in Edmonton.

"From 2005 til today, we've had 14 babies born … with syphilis, which is a totally preventable condition," said Dr. James Talbot, the associate medical officer of health for the Edmonton-area health authority.

Five of those babies have since died. The other nine babies born with the disease are currently receiving long-term care to deal with its effects.

Those who have typically been at greatest risk live in the province's inner cities — Edmonton's in particular — and usually in some degree of poverty.

"Over the last four or five years we've seen quite a number of new syphilis cases" said Dr. Matt Rose, a physician at the Boyle-McCauley health clinic in Edmonton who said the disease has been a growing problem during his nine years as a physician.

Health officials said no babies have been born or died from syphilis so far this year, perhaps indicating the spread of the disease is beginning to subside.

While syphilis is preventable if protection is worn during sexual intercourse, many of those who contract the disease are people aged 15 to 30 who undertake risky behaviour, or prostitutes with addiction problems, Talbot said.

Resurgence tracked

The resurgence of syphilis infections is not limited to Alberta. While the disease was nearly eradicated a decade ago, public health officials have been tracking its comeback across Canada.

"We've seen an increase specifically in infectious syphilis from 1997 to 2006 in the order of about 1,000 per cent, going from 115 cases up to about 1,200," said Maureen Perrin of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Syphilis is usually transmitted through sexual contact and initially results in a painless, open sore or ulcer in the area of exposure.The second stage creates a rash on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet.

Left untreated, the disease eventually attacks the heart, eyes and brain, and can lead to mental illness, blindness and death.