The Northwestern Health Unit is warning the public that they have seen a sudden and significant rise in the number of syphilis cases in the Kenora area.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) spread through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or direct contact with a syphilis sore.  It can also be spread through blood-to-blood contact such as sharing needles or drug preparation equipment or by sharing personal items like razors or toothbrushes that have come into contact with infected blood.

“Syphilis is easily cured with antibiotics when treated early. But, delayed treatment can result in severe and irreversible damage,” warns Gillian Lunny, Manager of Sexual Health and Harm Reduction with the health unit.

For those who do have symptoms, they are experienced in two stages:

- First stage - symptoms appear 1 to 12 weeks after infection and include a painless sore most likely around the mouth or genitals. The sore will go away but the infection does not.

- Second stage - symptoms appear once the sore begins healing. They include a rash that can be anywhere on the body and flu-like symptoms. These symptoms will go away but the infection does not.

Without treatment, syphilis can spread to the brain and nervous system (neurosyphilis) or to the eye (ocular syphilis). Symptoms of neurosyphilis include:

- severe headache,
- difficulty coordinating muscle movements,
- paralysis,
- numbness,
- dementia.

Symptoms of ocular syphilis include changes in your vision and even blindness.

To prevent syphilis, the health unit urges the public to use condoms and other barrier methods like dental dams, which are available for free at local Northwestern Health Unit offices. Those who have had unprotected sex should get tested from their health care provider or the Northwestern Health Unit; a person could be infected and not feel unwell.

The health unit says that those who are most at risk are:

- Pregnant women,
- People with multiple sexual partners,
- People who have unprotected sex,
- People who have had an STI in the past.

Pregnant women with syphilis can pass it on to their baby, which can cause serious health problems to the infant. Pregnant women should get tested for syphilis at least once during a pregnancy to be sure their baby is protected from the infection.

To prevent infection, Lunny encourages the public to visit their health care provider or their local health unit office.

“Health care providers and NWHU offices have free condoms, free testing, and can provide education to anyone needing more information on syphilis or any other sexual health related issue”.

To get rid of syphilis you will need to get antibiotic injections from a nurse or doctor. This means that the antibiotic called penicillin (or another antibiotic if allergic) will be given using a needle.

The health unit adds that the most commonly reported STI in the region is chlamydia.

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