‘It’s very concerning:’ Syphilis outbreak in Manitoba worsens; affecting infants born to untreated mothers

Children born to mothers who have syphilis are at risk of contracting the infection. Pixabay

The Province of Manitoba says a Syphilis outbreak is getting progressively worse and is now affecting some babies born to mothers who weren’t treated for the infection.

Syphilis, which is a Sexually Transmitted Infection, can be hard to diagnose due to the wide range of symptoms it presents, said Manitoba Health Monday.

“Although Syphilis is by no means new to our province, what we are seeing in Manitoba and throughout North America is a significant increase in the number of cases,” Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Isaac said.

The province said there has been a sharp increase in cases over the past five years from 118 cases in 2014 to more than 350 last year.

“The increase in women infected is noteworthy,” Dr. Isaac said. “Rising from 16 in 2014 to 168 in 2018. This is of particular concern because historically when cases increase in women it means Syphilis in newborns increase as well.”

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“Pregnant women can pass on the infection to their unborn baby during pregnancy or childbirth. This is called congenital Syphilis and may lead to birth defects or stillbirth.”

At least 10 newborns have become infected with Syphilis in the past six months.

Health officials said a large part of the blame for the growing problem is the methamphetamine epidemic in Manitoba.

In seven of the cases involving babies, the mothers were using illicit substances or injecting drugs.

“We’ve noted that some of the moms with congenital syphilis have been using crystal meth and injecting drugs, so that certainly could be exacerbating the situation,” he said.

Congenital Syphilis can be very dangerous and damaging to newborns.

Babies born with it could experience deformed bones, severe anemia, enlarged liver and spleen, jaundice, brain and nerve problems — including blindness or deafness — meningitis and skin rashes, Isaac said.

What is also concerning to the doctor is how rare this used to be.

“Congenital cases are rare and have been very rare in the past in Manitoba,” Isaac said.

The first case was discovered in 2015, and a second two years later in 2017. But a large increase has happened over the past six weeks.

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Manitoba is not the only province to see an upswing in the congenital version of the STI. Alberta, Quebec and Newfoundland have seen cases rise recently, as has parts of the United States.

Many of the cases have been in northern Manitoba, where access to medical care is more difficult.

READ MORE: Large number of Manitoba mothers of kids born with FAS aren’t getting prenatal care

The province says pregnant women should seek regular prenatal care and should be tested for syphilis and other STIs.

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