Chief medical officer Dr. Eilish Cleary: more syphilis in New Brunswick. ((CBC))

There's been a spike in syphilis infections, mainly among men, New Brunswick public health officials say.

There have been 46 reported cases of the sexually transmitted disease since November 2009, Dr. Eilish Cleary, New Brunswick's chief medical health officer, said Tuesday.

She said an alarmingly high number of men, especially in Moncton and Fredericton, are being diagnosed with syphilis.

"As of 10 years ago, there was very little syphilis in the province. We might have seen one or two cases every year. However, over the last five years we've seen a very sharp increase," Cleary said.

"So, for example, in 2007, we saw four cases and by 2009, we had nine cases. Then, last year we had 37 cases in total across the province."

The number of syphilis cases spiked mainly among men between the ages of 20 and 29, she said, and many of them were having sex with other men.

"Although most of the cases we're seeing now are in men, and some of those will have contracted it from other men, we do treat this as a disease of both men and women," Cleary said. "Hopefully, we can prevent it from being a disease of children, too."  

A handful of those men are also infected with HIV, she said.

AIDS Saint John executive director Julie Dingwall said people need to be reminded of the importance of practicing safe sex and using condoms.

"It's clear we've got a problem, it's clear that we've got to talk about this problem," she said.

"This indicates to me that this has been going on for quite some time, and that nobody talked about it any sort of public forum, and so it's gone unchecked. That's the sad part."

The province is urging family physicians to be on the lookout for possible syphilis cases.

A sore on the genital area is often how the disease starts. But in later stages, patients can show up with painful symptoms from rashes to fever to swelling of the lymph nodes. It can be fatal.

That's why public health officials are so eager to get people diagnosed early. Syphilis can be detected through a blood test done by a public health nurse. Results can be known in two weeks.

Since 1949, doctors have been treating the disease with penicillin with great success. They can also treat pregnant women this way, preventing their unborn babies from developing congenital syphilis.

Earlier this month, public health reported the number of cases of chlamydia was also up by about 20 per cent and the fastest growing rate is among teenagers.