Nfld. & Labrador

1st case of congenital syphilis confirmed in Eastern Health region

There was a spike in the number of syphilis cases overall, with 33 reported in 2018.

Health authority reports increase of infectious syphilis cases, reminds public of safe sex practices

Eastern Health is emphasizing the importance of practising safe sex, while confirming 33 cases of syphilis in 2018. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Eastern Health is reminding people about safe sex practices, after the health authority confirmed the first case of congenital syphilis in its region and notes a spike in syphilis cases overall.

Rates remained high in 2018, with 33 infectious syphilis cases reported, Eastern Health said in a release Friday morning.

"Use condoms and get tested," said Janice Fitzgerald, a regional medical officer with the provincial government, when asked what people can do to guard themselves against syphilis.

The cases are being seen in men and women, ages 15 to 68. The number of confirmed cases in 2018 is down slightly from 2017, when Eastern Health confirmed 35 cases. Prior to an outbreak in 2014, Eastern Health was seeing four or five cases a year.

Fitzgerald said some of the cases have been linked by contact tracing, but they don't all fall into the same chain of passage.

It often starts with a blister on the genitals, anus or mouth, but symptoms can be all over the map — from fevers and body aches to hearing loss and balance issues.

"The symptoms of syphilis are quite varied. It's often been called the Great Imitator and it can be difficult to diagnose in and of itself," Fitzgerald said.

Passed from mother to baby

Eastern Health saw its first incident of confirmed congenital syphilis in 2018, as well.

Congenital syphilis occurs when a pregnant woman, who has syphilis, spreads the disease to her unborn infant. When passed to a baby, syphilis can result in miscarriage, newborn death, and severe lifelong physical and developmental concerns.

"It can have wide-ranging and long lasting effects," Fitzgerald said.

In the early stages of infection, an untreated woman is 70 to 100 per cent likely to pass on the infection to her fetus. Those rates go down to about 40 per cent if she became infected, for example, six months before becoming pregnant.

"Without early and regular prenatal care, a pregnant woman may not know that she has syphilis and that her baby is at risk," Eastern Health said in its release.

"Syphilis during pregnancy is easily cured with the right antibiotics."

Syphilis is a bacterial sexually transmitted infection (STI) that can be contracted through unprotected anal, vaginal or oral sex, and can cause serious and permanent damage if left untreated.

Symptoms, at different stages of infection, include:

  • An open sore at the point of infection.
  • Flu-like illness.
  • Muscle aches and pains.
  • Fatigue.
  • Rash on chest, back, palms of hands and bottoms of feet.

For more information, Eastern Health has these public health recommendations:

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