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Syphilis outbreak in Nunavut: HSS
Thirty-three cases of syphilis have been reported in the territory in the past nine months

Jeanne Gagnon
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 18, 2013

Nunavut health officials are urging people to practice safe sex, which includes wearing a condom, because the territory is experiencing an outbreak of syphilis.

Dr. Maureen Baikie, the territory's chief medical officer of health, said she is "concerned" since the cases of the sexually transmitted disease continue to rise and are spreading beyond Iqaluit.

"We now have 33 cases of syphilis in Nunavut," she said. "While the bulk is around Iqaluit, we do have cases throughout the territory. This is the most cases of syphilis we've had so we're considering it an outbreak."

The 33 cases were reported between May 2012 and this month, she said.

Baikie said the outbreak likely started when someone who had syphilis came to the territory and then it spread. The Health Department is seeing people infected from a range of ages, with a greater incidence in the younger population, those aged 20 to 35, she added. The cases so far have been treated successfully, noted Baikie.

"I am not sure why our rates are as high as they are," she said. "Obviously, people are having unprotected sex or they wouldn't be getting infected."

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. The disease is treated with penicillin administered by injection, she added, and is easily cured if treated early. If left untreated, it can cause severe damage to the heart, blood vessels and the brain, or even cause death. People with syphilis are at greater risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

"The reason I am concerned, though, is first of all, some people may be asymptomatic," said Baikie. "Some people may have some sores on their genitalia. Some people may not know they are infected. And in order to know they're infected, they need to get tested and treated."

Pregnant women can pass the disease to their unborn child if they are not treated early, she added.

Decreasing the number of sexual partners and avoiding risky behaviours, such as drinking excessively or using drugs - situations that can lead to unprotected sex - can also help prevent the spread of the disease, explained Baikie.

"The best thing we can do to deal with syphilis is to prevent transmission," she said. "And there is a few ways to do that. One is for people to practice safe sex, which involves using condoms."

Since prevention is the best way to curb sexually transmitted diseases, sexual health program co-ordinator Anubha Momin said the main two messages she tells people is to use condoms and to get tested for STIs. She added it's important for people to educate themselves about sexual health and become more aware of the risks and how they can protect themselves.

"As people hear about it more and more and become more comfortable talking about it, they recognize STIs, they can be very serious.

"Sexual health is not something to keep behind closed doors."

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