Over the last few years in Alberta, there have been an alarming number of cases of an insidious sexually-transmitted infection: syphilis.
“We’ve seen numbers of cases come back [to levels] that we haven’t seen since the 1940s,” said Dr. Ameeta Singh, a clinical professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Alberta.
Cases of the STI have skyrocketed in recent years, with 2,509 reported in Alberta in 2020, up from just 535 in 2017.
However, the actual number might even be higher.
“Because our services have been cut back and we have done less testing during the pandemic that actually raises the significant concern that there are a lot more cases out there than the ones that we know about,” said Singh.
While Singh expected to see cases come down due to social distancing, they continued to rise. She said, “It was shocking because we certainly have the means to test for it, and to treat for it and to prevent it.”
When asked for an explanation for the surge in case numbers, Singh responded, “It’s related to multiple reasons, including the fact that many people have been using social media [and] dating apps to arrange casual sexual contact.” She also said that lowered inhibitions due to alcohol and drug use is another possible cause.
Some cases of syphilis are asymptomatic, which might prevent people from getting tested. When Carlos Flores received his diagnosis, he was shocked.
“I got a call from the doctor’s office and it came out of nowhere because I wasn’t feeling anything,” said Flores.
“Anyone engaging in sexual activity with one or more partners without using barrier protection is at risk,” said Singh, adding, “Even if you don’t have any symptoms, it’s really important to get tested.”
The infection progresses in stages and, if left untreated, can cause blindness, deafness, paralysis, and “problems with the brain and nervous system,” said Singh, adding, “All of that is completely preventable. In most cases, treatment is just one injection of penicillin.”
A lack of information may be partially to blame.
“Before my diagnosis, I didn’t really know a lot about syphilis and what can happen if you do catch it,” said Flores.
Singh encourages anyone who may be at risk to get tested by mentioning that it is important for your current health as well as your long-term health.