The University of Alberta has started a clinical trial to try to fight a syphilis outbreak in Edmonton and across northern Alberta.
An outbreak was declared last year by Alberta Health Services after 12 stillborn births and 1,753 newly diagnosed cases of syphilis, a highly infectious sexually transmitted infection.
“Edmonton, in addition to being the epicentre for COVID, is also the epicentre for syphilis,” Dr. Ameeta Singh, a U of A clinical professor who’s leading the trial, said Monday in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Case counts, she said, have continued to rise since the syphilis outbreak was declared in July 2019.
The clinical trial aims to screen 1,500 at-risk Albertans with dual HIV and syphilis test kits at homeless shelters, the Edmonton Remand Centre, two emergency departments at Edmonton hospitals and two clinics in First Nations communities in northern Alberta.
“Our hope with the point-of-care test is that we would be able to provide the test results immediately and to provide treatment in a single patient visit,” explained Singh, who’s also an infectious diseases specialist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and the Edmonton Sexually Transmitted Infections Clinic.
Screening typically involves taking a blood sample and sending it to a lab. It can take up to two weeks to get results. The trial will allow health-care staff to do a simple finger-prick blood test and get results within five minutes, she said.
Singh said a single injection of the antibiotic penicillin cures syphilis within 24 hours of treatment.
“It not only would prevent syphilis from being passed on to other people but, in the case of pregnant women, prevent it from being passed on to the infant.”
Women who acquire syphilis during pregnancy almost always pass it on to the baby, which can lead to stillbirth or developmental delays.
Singh said syphilis often affects populations that are sometimes hard to reach, particularly Indigenous women who are either homeless or have unstable housing and have addictions or mental-health issues.
That means they sometimes don’t return for follow-up tests or treatment, she said.
Singh said it’s important to test for both syphilis and HIV, because syphilis increases a person’s chances of acquiring or passing on HIV if exposed to both at the same time.