06/06/2013 02:15 EDT | Updated 08/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Syphilis Infections Rise Alarmingly In BC

Syphilitic toes. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum. It has often been called 'the great imitator' because so many of the signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from those of other disea
VANCOUVER - The B.C. Centre for Disease Control and health officials issued a warning Thursday to gay and bisexual men about an alarming epidemic of syphilis infections.

The highly contagious disease is at the highest level seen in 30 years in the region, said Dr. Reka Gustafson, medical health officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

The organization said in news release that last year there were 371 reported cases in B.C., and 80 per cent of them were in the Vancouver region.

"We've had a significant increase in syphilis. It's mostly affecting gay men and other men who have sex with men," Gustafson said.

"It's actually part of an increase that's being seen throughout North America in large cities."

The underlying cause of the increase is not clear, she said, but rates of infection for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are stable.

Health officials said syphilis is often mistaken for other diseases, and it can fail to present symptoms or present only mild symptoms.

It's easily treatable but left untreated it can cause blindness, hearing loss, bone pain and neurological problems. Severe cases can be fatal.

The disease can be transmitted through close contact during oral, vaginal or anal sex, and it increases the risk of HIV infection.

Symptoms include sores resembling bug bites, rashes on the palms and soles of the feet, fever, swollen lymph glands and weight loss.

Health authorities are urging sexually active gay and bisexual men to be tested every three to six months. They also warned that pregnant women can transmit the infection to unborn children.

Geoff Ford, a nurse educator with the health authority's STOP HIV outreach team, urged regular testing.

"Catching the disease early and treating it with antibiotics is far easier than the consequences of syphilis when it’s too late," he said.

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