NWT’s public health director is asking people to take special care to prevent the spread of syphilis as children are born with the congenital form of the disease.
Since July, two babies have been born with congenital syphilis, Dr. Kami Kandola, Director of Public Health, said in an interview with the CBC, bringing the total to four since the syphilis outbreak was declared in 2019.
Congenital syphilis occurs when a mother passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy. If left untreated, it can lead to blindness, deafness, or deformed bones in the child.
“We’ve had at least nine women test positive for syphilis in their pregnancy, and now we’re also seeing syphilis coming into the communities involved in the streets and that makes it really hard to identify cases and contact,” Kandola said.
What is congenital syphilis?
Congenital syphilis is a disease that occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it can cause:
- deformed bones
- severe anemia (low blood count)
- enlarged liver and spleen
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- brain and nerve problems, such as blindness or deafness
- meningitis and skin rashes
Kandola urges people to get tested at least three times during pregnancy.
“The problem with syphilis is that you can get treatment and treatment is effective, but if we don’t treat partners or contacts, people can get re-infected and then go back to square one.”
Working with vulnerable populations
The NWT health department is working on solutions as syphilis spreads across the land and among populations that may not access the health care system or trust hospitals or clinics.
Those solutions include rapid syphilis tests that can be taken to the streets and free condom stations.
Rapid tests were announced in July and began hitting the streets in Yellowknife last month. Test results are revealed in 15 minutes and 20 have been done so far, Kandola said, noting that phase two of the launch will bring rapid tests to Hay River, Whatì, Fort Smith, Fort Simpson, Fort Providence and Fort Resolution.
Earlier this week, the Department of Health and Human Services also announced that 200 free condom dispensers will be installed in public places across the territory. The goal is to have all the dispensers ready for the holidays, Kandola said.
“The challenge that was identified was that access to condoms was limited, inconsistently available or non-existent in some communities,” Kandola said.
While condoms don’t provide 100 percent protection against syphilis, Kandola said, when used consistently, they lower the risk.
Side effects can be fatal if left untreated
The chronic and infectious disease is preventable and treatable, but the territory has seen more than 300 cases in the last four years.
One theory for the surge in cases is that the numbers are picking up after a lack of testing during the COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s almost like having a small local fire: as cases rise, it becomes more and more complicated to reduce cases because more people are infected, more people have not come forward. [who] could be infected,” Kandola said, noting that the infection can be transmitted for up to a year.
There are several stages to the infection, Kandola explained. In the first stage, between 10 days and three months, a painless sore may develop; in the second stage, two to eight weeks, people may develop a rash or have flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, and sore throat.
There is also a hidden stage where people may not have symptoms and a tertiary stage where, if left untreated for a year or more, people can develop blindness or mental health disorders, or have damage to their brain. brain, heart, eyes and nervous system. and even risk dying.
Testing is key, Kandola said.
“The main thing is that not everyone will be able to realize that they have symptoms of syphilis. They may think it’s something else, or they may not see that sore that doesn’t hurt.”
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