Medical health officials are warning of a spike in syphilis cases in Saskatchewan this year.
“So it’s more or less an attempt to hit the panic button to let individuals know we’re dealing with an outbreak in Saskatchewan,” said medical health officer Dr. Nnamidi Ndubuka of the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA).
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection spread through direct contact with an ulcer or a rash from unprotected sex.
The age group most affected are people between the ages of 14 and 39; 43 percent male and 57 percent female.
More than 55 percent of men and 49 percent of women infected with syphilis reported no condom use as a risk factor, Ndubuka said.
Nearly one in three men and women say that sexual contact with a partner with an unknown infection has resulted in transmission.
Alcohol use and non-intravenous drug use at the time of transmission were also risk factors.
Ndubuka says part of the strategy to reduce transmission is an awareness campaign that NITHA and partner health agencies launched in May with information posters and social media posts.
Health authorities provide information on how to prevent transmission and clinics have increased screening for all sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.
In NITHA communities, community health workers have made free condoms more easily accessible in public areas.
“We also want all communities, outside the province, both indigenous and non-indigenous, to all come together to reduce transmission,” Ndubuka said.
NITHA serves 33 First Nations communities with a population of 55,000 in central and northern Saskatchewan.
The Regional Medical Health Officer for Indigenous Services Canada in Saskatchewan, Dr. Ibrahim Khan says 411 cases of infectious syphilis were diagnosed in the First Nations communities in the reserve from January 1 to June 30 this year.
“Syphilis can spread very quickly when people have unprotected sex and there is no access to treatment or care,” Khan says.
That’s a 928 percent increase in cases since the last major spike in 2019, when 40 cases were reported in the same time frame.
The Saskatchewan Department of Health says the number of infectious syphilis cases in the province rose to 1,940 last year, from 924 in 2020.
ISC says it is working with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and primary care physicians to provide culturally based care so that people feel comfortable seeking screening tests and treatment.
Khan says that since the last jump in cases in 2019, there have been six stillbirths due to syphilis and 19 cases of early congenital syphilis cases are under investigation by health officials.
“If you have syphilis and you can’t seek care and you’re not under treatment and if you’re a pregnant woman for example there are definitely some really deadly consequences and that’s the baby being born with syphilis or the baby going dead in the womb born,” he said.
Syphilis treatment is funded by the government. Khan says that a single injection of Benzathine and aftercare is the typical course of treatment.
Without treatment, syphilis leads to organ and neurological damage and can result in death.
“Indigenous women are most disadvantaged in access to care in terms of barriers to care, racism, poverty, domestic violence and violence,” he said.
Symptoms include rashes and lesions in the general area where bodily fluids are exchanged during sexual contact. Symptoms may not always be visible.