A spike in the number of new syphilis cases in Winnipeg this year has health officials scrambling to increase awareness.

According to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, between 2008 and 2011, Winnipeg averaged less than a dozen new cases per year, with none of them being locally transmitted.

“Since late 2012 we started to see an increase, so in the last couple of years 2015, 2016, 2017, we saw about 120 to 130 cases per year,” explained Dr. Pierre Plourde, medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

“In the first six months of 2018 we have seen that number hit 120 to 130.”

Plourde says the reason for the sudden increase is a slow buildup of people in the city who are not accessing treatment and spreading the infection.

“You get to a tipping point,” said Plourde. “Where a critical number of people are infected and re-infected that creates a curve that is slowly rising that suddenly rises exponentially.”

The health authority is working with community partners to get those at risk screened and treated.

One of the major concerns coming out of the new statistics is an increase in the number of babies born from mothers with syphilis.

“The risk of mother transmitting to baby during the pregnancy is very high if not detected in time and not treated,” said Plourde. “Death is one of the common end points of congenital syphilis and babies that are born alive with syphilis can have severed life-long abnormalities.”

Despite the increase in new infections, Plourde says the general public is not at risk, and that the majority of new cases are the result of heterosexual transmission and the sharing of needles.

Plourde said among the cases resulting from heterosexual sex, “Well over 50 per cent of them happen to reside in the core area of Winnipeg, so in the central areas of Winnipeg and a significant proportion, about 20 to 30 per cent, report using crystal meth and about 20 per cent are inadequately housed and/or homeless."

The syphilis infection can lead to serious health complications if left untreated, but is relatively simple to cure.

Plourde says that with the proper programs, syphilis can be eradicated in the city.

“It is possible… is it easy? No, it’s a lot of hard work and it’s difficult… but it is possible.”

Manitoba provides free testing and treatment to the public for all sexually transmitted infections.

With files from CTV's Michelle Gerwing