British Columbia

Syphilis at highest rate in B.C. in more than 30 years

Rates for syphilis in the province reached their highest point in more than three decades in 2018 and continue to climb, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. 

Regular testing encouraged among gay and bisexual men, and pregnant women

Condom usage and regular testing are both ways of preventing the spread of syphilis. (Purple Anvil/Shutterstock )

Syphilis rates in B.C. reached their highest point in more than three decades in 2018 and continue to climb, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC). 

There were 919 cases across the province last year, up from a low of 154 cases in 2010.

"So we've seen that over-five-times increase and we're projected to see more this coming year," said Dr. Mark Gilbert, with BCCDC's Clinical Prevention Services. 

Gilbert said people with syphilis often don't have symptoms and so don't realize they have it.

The infection is easily treatable through an injection of penicillin, but if left untreated, it can lead to brain and heart damage or even death. 

"That's why we're really thinking about what can we do to renew our efforts around preventing syphilis in the province and getting those numbers lower," Gilbert said. 

Dr. Mark Gilbert with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control said regular testing is crucial in preventing the spread of syphilis. (Harman/CBC)

Gay men encouraged to get tested regularly 

Because most of the cases in B.C. — 94 per cent in 2018 — occurred in men who reported having sex with other men, Gilbert is encouraging all gay or bisexual men to get tested regularly.

More than half of those cases were in Vancouver. 

Simon Rayek with the Health Initiative for Men in Vancouver said it's important for people to know that it's not a big deal to be diagnosed with syphilis and that the treatment is easy. 

"I think people are scared to come in and to really take care of themselves," Rayek said. 

The non-profit HIM clinics offer confidential sexually-transmitted infection (STI) testing and counselling for gay men at locations around the Lower Mainland, but also do satellite testing at smaller communities. 

"There's just the lack of spaces where queer guys feel comfortable to really get tested and really learn more about syphilis and the other STIs that affect us at higher rates," he said. 

Syphilis is easily treatable and people shouldn't be afraid to get tested for it, said Simon Rayek with the Health Initiative for Men in Vancouver. (Harman/CBC)

Gilbert said it's hard to tell why the numbers in B.C. continue to rise, but said it could be due to increased testing or a change in sexual behaviour. 

The trend is concurrent with statistics showing a rise in syphilis across the country. 

"So B.C. is not unique that way, but it still is an issue that we need to be taking quite seriously and thinking what we can do about it," Gilbert said.

Cases occurring in pregnant mothers

While men do make up the bulk of syphilis cases, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control is now recommending increased screening for pregnant women, after two mothers passed on the infection to their babies so far this year. 

Gilbert said those are the first cases of congenital syphilis in the province in five years, and the complications can be pretty severe. 

"It can lead to loss of pregnancy. It can also, if not treated at delivery, can lead to some permanent lifetime implications for the children," he said.  

The centre is recommending every woman gets screened for syphilis at the beginning of pregnancy, and again close to the time of delivery. 


Micki Cowan


Micki is a reporter and producer at CBC Vancouver. Her passions are municipal issues and water security.


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