Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Iqaluit September 04, 2012 - 3:25 pm

Nunavut health officials wage new health battle: against syphilis

More than a dozen cases detected in Iqaluit since May 2012

DAVID MURPHY
This up-close view of germ linked to syphilis infections. It makes itself known first by way of sores that can appear on the genitals and other parts of the body. (HANDOUT IMAGE)
This up-close view of germ linked to syphilis infections. It makes itself known first by way of sores that can appear on the genitals and other parts of the body. (HANDOUT IMAGE)
Nunavut’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Geraldine Osborne speaks at a Sept. 4 press conference in Iqaluit. She says she's not surprised syphilis has made its way to Nunavut, and expects the bacterial infection to spread to other communities. So far, 13 cases have appeared in Iqaluit. (PHOTO BY DAVID MURPHY)
Nunavut’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Geraldine Osborne speaks at a Sept. 4 press conference in Iqaluit. She says she's not surprised syphilis has made its way to Nunavut, and expects the bacterial infection to spread to other communities. So far, 13 cases have appeared in Iqaluit. (PHOTO BY DAVID MURPHY)

If you live in Iqaluit and you have sexual relations without a condom, you need to worry about catching a nasty — and potentially lethal — sexually transmitted infection: syphilis.

Nunavut doctors say they’re worried about an alarming outbreak of syphilis that started earlier this year in the territory.

The 13 cases of syphilis that have surfaced in Iqaluit since May prompted officials from the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Health and Social Services to hold a press conference in Iqaluit Sept. 4.

There, Nunavut’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Geraldine Osborne, urged “anyone who thinks they may be infected with syphilis to visit their health care provider today.”

You may have syphilis if you notice a new sore that’s painful or tender on your genitals or elsewhere on your body.

But the symptoms of syphilis, also known as “the great imitator,” can be similar to those of other illnesses.

The most common location for a sore to develop in women is on the cervix, the penis in heterosexual men and anally and rectally in men who have sex with men.

And women may not even know they have syphilis if the sore isn’t visible.

About four to 10 weeks after you’re infected, you may notice swollen glands, fever, muscle aches and a rash on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet.

Untreated, syphilis can cause severe damage to the heart, blood vessels, brain, and can possibly lead to death.

“Over the last 10 years syphilis has re-emerged in the US, Europe and southern Canada,” Osborne said Sept. 4. “It was only a matter of time until we’d see it in Nunavut.”

In 2011, there were only five cases of syphilis in Nunavut. Before then, syphilis was uncommon.

But Osborne expects there will be more cases throughout the territory.

“Because people are mobile, I am expecting that we will see cases quite soon in other communities,” she said. 

Officials suspect there are more cases in Iqaluit and possibly other locations in Nunavut among people who haven’t come forward or recognized the symptoms yet.

“To control the outbreak, we depend on people being forthcoming with symptoms. And they also have to be forthcoming about their partners,” Osborne said.

The most common way people spread the infection is through unprotected sex with multiple partners.

However, the infection can be treated easily with antibiotics, which can control the infection in as little as two weeks.

Most cases in Iqaluit have been caught at the primary stage of the infection, and a few in the secondary stage.

After these two stages, a latent stage occurs when the rashes and other symptoms disappear, but the infection can fester inside the body for over 20 years, constantly spreading throughout the body.

After that, the bacteria spreads to different organs in the body, leading to death.

In pregnant women, syphilis can lead to fatal deformities in babies.

The GN is fighting back the infection, Osborne said, with an “outbreak management team” whose members meet weekly.

They are dealing with the outbreak by meeting with all the possible contacts of infected patients and trying to make people aware of the outbreak.

The GN has also produced posters that will be displayed throughout the city in French, Inuktitut and English, posted everywhere from health centres to bars. These warn people that “syphilis is on the rise” and to “get tested or treated.”

A fact sheet will also be distributed in Iqaluit and among communities throughout the territory.

The GN is urging sexual partners to use a condom during sex to prevent the spread of the infection.

And “risky behavior like excessive drinking and drug use” that leads to unprotected sex should be avoided, the GN said.

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