How COVID-19 may be making a syphilis outbreak in Manitoba even worse

By | August 10, 2020

WINNIPEG — While COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Manitoba, health officials are warning of another outbreak in the province, and the COVID-19 pandemic may be making it worse.

In 2019, Manitoba saw nearly 1,880 cases of infectious syphilis – a bacterial infection spread through sexual activity. According to a letter from the province sent to health care providers in July, this is the highest number of infectious syphilis cases the province has seen in more than 50 years.

But so far in 2020, the amount of people getting tested for syphilis has decreased, and according to a provincial spokesperson that is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This implies that there are likely people who are positive who are not getting tested and therefore are not getting treatment and could potentially pass the infection on to new sexual partners or children via congenital syphilis,” a provincial spokesperson told CTV News in a written statement.

They said while testing has decreased, positivity rates for the infection remain high.

“It’s very concerning – we were already in a place where syphilis is a huge problem with the sheer volume and number of people with syphilis,” said Bobbette Shoffner, the executive director of the Mount Carmel Clinic in Winnipeg.

“With everything slowed down with COVID, certainly people are still out and connecting with each other, and the less people that we test means the less people we can treat and the more that it can be spread, so it’s a big problem.”

Shoffner said people may not be accessing health care during the pandemic in the same way that they use to, and with all the COVID closures, some may not know where to go for testing.

“Simply, I think COVID has sort of changed the world for everybody,” she said.

In a statement to CTV News, the province said anyone who does not use a barrier during sex may be at risk of contracting the infection. The statement said those who are pregnant can pass on the infection to their unborn baby during pregnancy or childbirth, which can lead to birth defects or stillbirth.

“The first symptom of syphilis infection consists of a painless open sore called a chancre or ulcer,” a spokesperson for the province said, adding it may take days to months for the symptoms to develop and usually appears in the area where the bacteria entered the body.

They said syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, but if left untreated can cause damage to the nervous system and brain.

“The most important message is, please come and get tested – please come and follow up with your treatment,” Shoffner said.

“This is still a phenomenal issue in our community, and we are still here to respond.”

More information about the symptoms of syphilis can be found on the provincial health website.

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