Saskatoon syphilis outbreak declines

After declaring an outbreak of syphilis in the city on Mar. 12, the Saskatoon Health Region has seen a decline in reported cases of the sexually transmitted infection.

Citing the fact that the majority of infections were reported in February and March and that April has shown an apparent decrease in the illness, Johnmark Opondo, deputy medical health officer for Saskatoon Health Region, was positive in his outlook going forward.

“I’m quite close to saying we can almost declare the outbreak over,” Opondo said. “When we’ve gone for about six months without a new case, I would feel confident calling that off.”

An outbreak is declared when a significant upward trend is found in reported cases of an illness over previous years. After seeing an increase from three cases of syphilis in 2013 to nine in 2014 to date, Opondo felt it was necessary to take steps toward improving public awareness. In extreme circumstances, such as when the rates of lethality for an infection are particularly high, an outbreak can be declared after only a single case is seen. Opondo cited SARS as an example of when even one instance can lead to an outbreak being declared.

“With the case of syphilis, because it’s so rare, even when we begin to see an outbreak we believe that if we quickly draw a large net around it — the cases and contacts — and do the right things in those groups, we can stamp it out real quick,” Opondo said. “And I think that’s what we’ve seen after responding rapidly.”

Opondo believes the upward trend of syphilis cases has been caused by a recent increase in the use of social networking websites and smartphone apps as a means of finding sexual partners, as indicated by the Saskatoon Health Region’s contact tracing process done on those infected.

“It’s really changed the nature of interaction,” Opondo said. “Even if you do meet people in different ways, you still are going to meet in the real world because that’s where the actual sexual contact happens, and the same protect yourself messages should apply.

“It seems individuals are able to get to that point where they want to have intimate contact a lot faster, and don’t always remember that sexually transmitted diseases can still be present and they still need to use caution.”

Though only syphilis has been declared an outbreak, Opondo said that its growth is in line with an increase in cases of all STIs across the board. Opondo noted syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia as “the three big ones” which have been seeing a growth in trends in 2014. Though gonorrhea and chlamydia are reported with greater frequency in Saskatoon, with yearly averages for the two falling between 85 to 90 and 700 to 900 cases, respectively, syphilis was singled out as an outbreak due to its dramatic rise this year.

Lynn Kuffner, manager of Student Health and Counselling Services for the University of Saskatchewan, stressed the importance of individuals getting checked for STIs if they have been engaging in unprotected sex. Though each infection normally presents in physical ways, it’s not uncommon for some to be asymptomatic or for symptoms to subside without the infection itself having been properly treated.

Students interested in getting tested can visit SHCS on the fourth floor of Place Riel.