Worst rate since 1948: Syphilis outbreak declared in Alberta

With syphilis rates at their highest in Alberta since 1948, the province’s chief medical officer of health declared an outbreak Tuesday and pledged to address the alarming spike in sexually transmitted infections.

The Edmonton area is at the outbreak’s epicentre, with almost two-thirds of the 1,536 cases across the province reported in the region in 2018. That’s almost a tenfold increase over 2014, according to health officials.

“This is not just a small fluctuation, this is a significant change in a single year. And it’s getting worse. We’re expecting even higher rates in 2019,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer, said at a news conference Tuesday to address the outbreak.

A total of 977 cases of infectious syphilis were reported in 2018 in Edmonton, according to a provincial government report measuring rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV. Calgary by comparison had 206 cases in 2018.

“It is vitally important that everyone who is sexually active in Alberta take responsibility for having safer sex and get tested, especially if you have new or multiple partners,” said Dr. Laura McDougall, senior medical officer of health at Alberta Health Services.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw speaks about a syphilis outbreak on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. IAN KUCERAK / POSTMEDIA

Untreated infectious syphilis can lead to serious long-term health complications. While there are not always symptoms in the early stages, it can present as a painless ulcer, progress to general symptoms like a fever, and even lead to eye problems or dementia in late stages, said Hinshaw.

“It rolls through the body in stages,” said Hinshaw.

Health officials are also extremely concerned about rates of congenital syphilis, which occurs when a baby is infected during pregnancy. This can cause brain and nerve damage, among other serious medical problems. There have been 22 cases across the province between 2014 and 2018, one of which was a stillbirth. Of those, 13 were reported in the Edmonton area, eight in 2018 alone.

The current caseload is still “concerning and alarming” and “requires action,” said McDougall.

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