Syphilis a ‘tragedy’ in Saskatoon: medical health officer

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 pandemic impact on Saskatoon’s syphilis situation: MHO'
COVID-19 pandemic impact on Saskatoon’s syphilis situation: MHO
WATCH: Saskatoon’s medical health officer (MHO), Dr. Johnmark Opondo, explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on syphilis cases, which have been increasing for years in the city – Sep 3, 2021

Saskatoon’s medical health officer (MHO) said syphilis isn’t a new disease but has become a “tragedy” over the years.

According to the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), the region’s cases have been rising from 38 in 2016 to 391 between the beginning of 2021 and the end of July, with 97 per cent of current cases from Saskatoon.

“Syphilis is a disease that has more or less been conquered in North America. When I started working in Saskatchewan in 2003, it wasn’t unusual. Some years we’d have no cases of syphilis so this is the tragedy,” Dr. Johnmark Opondo said.

“Where we’re at today … we’re really in outbreak proportions.

“As we come out of the (COVID-19) pandemic … We’re just jumping from one crisis to another. That’s what just bothers me and I feel a little bit worried for my public health teams who are so exhausted.”

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Heather Hale, executive director of Saskatoon Sexual Health, said they’ve seen a “significant” syphilis cases increase and the factors that contribute are “complicated.”

“Factors include the systemic issues about folks who might not have access to a family doctor who might have other complicating factors in their lives, like lack of access to housing or food, those kind of things,” she said.

“Also, once you start seeing an increase in infections throughout the province, so like in one area, it’s more likely that people will get infected with another infection.

“Unfortunately, Saskatchewan overall has very poor sexual health outcomes … we have the highest rates of HIV infections in Canada so it’s nearly three times the national average. We have the highest provincial rate of chlamydia. We have the second-highest provincial rate of gonorrhoea. We have really high rates of adolescent pregnancy.” 

Click to play video: 'Sask. HIV and syphilis rates spike in 2019'
Sask. HIV and syphilis rates spike in 2019

According to Health Canada’s website, syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that is on the rise in the country.

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Opondo said the increase in Saskatoon has introduced the element of babies being born with syphilis, called congenital syphilis, and can have a number of serious health issues.

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“What’s really happened in the last little while … now we are seeing another epidemiology of syphilis, which is probably the most serious in that some of these individuals — these are both men and women — being young individuals in their reproductive age,” he said.

“(Those without) syphilis care can provide a risk to the next generation so this is really something that we want to address … We really need to take action to really protect the next generation of Saskatchewan citizens.

“Newborns who are exposed to syphilis in the uterus have very bad outcomes and the outcomes can range from stillbirths to very significant neurological problems, which are life-long.”

In a statement to Global News, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health said from 2018 through 2020 there were six confirmed congenital syphilis cases in the province and two newborn deaths from complications of syphilis last year.

The doctor said the SHA’s response is acting on many levels, including awareness and support for physicians and public health teams with knowing and making sure universal strategies are followed.

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“It’s a preventable illness … we need to basically make sure that we’re treating our sexual health like our overall health and we’re paying attention to it,” Opondo said.

“Don’t be intimidated. There’s no stigma. Get your syphilis test done and if it’s positive, the treatment is universal and available and it’s covered by the health plan and the system and it’s a one-time treatment so it’s pretty straightforward.

“One way to deal with congenital syphilis is to make sure that we are screening and testing every single pregnant woman in Saskatchewan … Adding a syphilis test is standard and we want to make sure that we do this all the time.”

Syphilis is diagnosed through a simple blood test and is easily treated with penicillin or other antibiotics, according to Health Canada.

Click to play video: 'Syphilis cases nearly triple in Saskatchewan'
Syphilis cases nearly triple in Saskatchewan

Opondo added Saskatoon isn’t the only place where syphilis is of concern in the province.

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“(Provincially) we’re seeing a lot of syphilis activity in central Saskatchewan, north-central, which includes the (Prince Albert) area, on- and off-reserve,” he said.

“It does move sort of westwards … so North Battleford area and Lloydminster, which is in our former prairie north health regions, all those are areas that have reported and have been very busy responding to a syphilis epidemic.

“Between the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, we have some of the highest provincial rates of syphilis and there’s a lot of connection back and forth between communities that are on the western side of Saskatchewan.”

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