“Congenital syphilis is really a not great thing. That baby’s going to have lots of health problems, it causes stillborns in babies sometimes, and they’re also likely going to have birth defects and disabilities moving forward. So that I think will be a huge strain on the health care system.”
Data from Alberta Health shows that in 2018 there were 1,536 confirmed cases of syphilis in all of Alberta, 208 of which were located in the North Zone. Those figures rose dramatically by 2019 when 2,265 cases were confirmed in the province, with 428 located in northern Alberta.
Congenital syphilis figures have also seen increases with 38 babies born with the disease in 2019, compared with just eight the previous year, and four the year before that. Of the cases confirmed in 2019, 12 did not survive.
Syphilis is treatable with antibiotic injections, but Loset says it has to be caught early, as it can affect other organs in the body.
“Later stages of syphilis can cause major problems in central organs in your body like the cardiovascular system and it can cause problems in your neurological system. So it can cause mental health concerns, and as it progresses it can lead to further complications when it comes to treating it.”
Loset goes on to say other STIs have been on the rise in recent years, especially gonorrhea and chlamydia, which have been disproportionately affecting people under the age of 24.
Alberta Health statistics show there were 18,206 cases of chlamydia confirmed in Alberta in 2019 (2,490 of which were in the North Zone) and 5,333 cases of gonorrhea (621 in the North).
In order to reduce the risk of spreading these infections, Loset says work needs to be done to de-stigmatize sexual health resources.
“There’s a lot of shame associated with STI testing. There’s that correlation that people think that if they have an STI or somebody has an STI that they are dirty or something like that… People have sex, so you should get tested if you’re having sex.”
She adds encouraging safer sex measures is another important tool in reducing transmission of STIs.
Loset says that though Northreach isn’t able to administer tests, there are a number of local doctors who can do them, and anyone who doesn’t have a family doctor can contact Northreach for a referral.