Despite advances in health care, the number of syphilis cases is rising dramatically across Alberta, reaching its highest levels in nearly 70 years.
Cases of the disease have exploded in Alberta since 2000, with only 17 reported. By 2020, there were 2,509 cases in the county.
“The highest rates we’ve seen since the 1940s, which is of course the pre-antibiotic era,” said Dr. Amita Singh, an infectious disease specialist who works at Royal Edmonton Alexandra Hospital.
“Despite all our progress, we are seeing an alarming rate of syphilis cases.”
Syphilis has been cited by Dr. Dina Henshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, as one of the troubling health threats that can’t be controlled while resources are linked to COVID-19. Allocating more resources to those threats was the main reason Alberta’s controversial rollback of COVID-19 measures, announced in late July.
The disease is a bacterial infection, usually spread through sexual contact, that infects millions around the world each year. Without treatment, syphilis may attack major organs, resulting in death.
Most cases are in Edmonton
Nearly half of the cases were in Edmonton, which had about three times as many as was reported in Calgary. In fact, Edmonton has one of the highest rates of syphilis in Canada.
In the first three months of 2021, 765 cases were reported in Alberta.
listen | An infectious disease expert talks about the reasons for the high rates of syphilis in Alberta:
active radio9:47Rising number of syphilis patients
Singh said the popularity of social media apps used for dating, such as Facebook, may be part of the reason for the increase.
Also, people may take fewer precautions and use condoms less frequently, she told CBC Edmonton Radio Active.
There is also a significant association between methamphetamine and sexually transmitted diseases.
“Not only does the drug stimulate sex drive, but it also encourages risky behavior,” Singh said.
Edmonton also has the highest rate of methamphetamine use per capita, according to sewage survey by Statistics Canada. The agency has been testing wastewater in five major cities since 2019.
The last time syphilis broke out in Alberta was in 1948, a few years after penicillin was widely available and cases began to decline.
“Remarkably, the bacteria have not developed resistance to penicillin,” Singh said, noting that it is still used as a treatment today.
In 1998, Canada announced a target To eliminate syphilis. However, the following year, an outbreak was reported in downtown Vancouver and shortly after the outbreak in northern Alberta.
The disease can be transmitted to children
Syphilis can be particularly troublesome for pregnant women because it can pass on to the baby and lead to stillbirth.
About 15 percent of cases in Alberta occur in pregnant women, Singh said.
“And many of these women are disproportionately affected by other social determinants of health, such as homelessness, poverty, addiction, and mental health issues.”
A syphilis outbreak was declared in 2019 by Alberta Health Services after 12 stillbirths.
This problem is not only Alberta’s because the disease is also spreading throughout Canada, the United States and Australia.
To combat the growing numbers, Singh said raising public awareness is essential to get individuals to get tested.
A rapid test for syphilis and HIV is also being done to give patients an initial result within minutes.
“If we find someone with syphilis, we can provide treatment there, which we hope will prevent transmission as well as complications,” Singh said.