Syphilis cases in babies skyrockets in Canada

The number of babies born with syphilis in Canada is rising, with a major increase in the prairie provinces, including Manitoba. Alex Karpa reports.

By Alex Karpa

The number of babies born with congenital syphilis in Canada is rising at a faster rate than in the United States and Europe, with a major increase in the prairie provinces, including Manitoba.

According to data from Health Canada, syphilis cases in babies have skyrocketed over the last five years, and preliminary government data, obtained by Reuters, shows the cases are expected to increase in 2022.

“We have a health and public health crisis on our hands, particularly in the prairie provinces,” said Dr. Sean Rourke, Scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “This is an urgent need that needs a response, and we can’t be waiting.”

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by bacteria. Congenital syphilis occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection onto her baby during pregnancy.

Rourke says many mothers are not getting the prenatal care that they need, especially in remote and First Nations communities.

“These are folks that have been dealing with inter-generational trauma, colonization, and complex social health circumstances. It’s all of those things, I think, that have led to us where we are today,” explained Rourke.

The data shows the rise is concentrated in the prairie provinces, with Manitoba recording the highest rate of cases at 371 per 100,000 live births in 2021.

Dr. Jared Bullard, an associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba, says Manitoba didn’t have any recorded cases of syphilis from 1977 to 2015, but he says a number of factors have led to the recent resurgence of the disease.

“Often it is people who are poor, living in poverty, experiencing homelessness, a lot of the time there may be inability to access the health care system. It might also have to do with addictions and injection drug use and also mental health comes into play as well,” said Dr. Bullard.

Pediatrician Dr. Marni Hanna says syphilis is a problem that can impact many systems in the body.

“If we’re concerned about syphilis, we’re doing imaging of their brain and lumbar puncture which is not fun for a new born and a whole bunch of blood work. They get quite a work-up and then they need a more prolonged course of anti-biotics to deal with it.”

Health Canada has approved a syphilis and HIV test that can provide results in under a minute.

Rourke says the federal government needs to provide these resources immediately.

“We haven’t been paying close enough attention of these people and we need to do a much better job.”

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