Alberta's syphilis outbreak can be partly attributed to an economic boom in the province that has given people the opportunity to indulge in bad behavior like careless driving and drug abuse, according to Health Minister Ron Liepert.

"We have developed in this province over the past few years a very, I'd say, careless attitude in some ways. I think that plays into it more than any other factor," Liepert told members of the standing committee on health at the Alberta legislature Monday night.

Liepert appeared before the committee to answer questions about how the province has handled a syphilis outbreak over the past few years.

Liepert said the province's booming economy has increased the number of  workers with high disposable incomes, which has led to more highway accidents and drug abuse. It has also attracted more people who work in the sex trade.

"You're dealing with a high degree of people, who quite often don't get proper screening, don't see a doctor on a regular basis, and the fact is we have a higher percentage of those types of individuals here because of the boom situation," he said. "The sex trade doesn't do well if there isn't the money around to support it."

The syphilis outbreak has been serious enough to contribute to the deaths of babies who developed the disease during their mothers' pregnancies.

Rates rising across Canada since 1997

In August, health officials revealed that five out of 14 babies who were born with syphilis in Alberta since 2005 have died. The remaining children have required long-term care.

The province recorded 218 cases of syphilis in 2006, and 250 in 2007, with many of them in Edmonton.  Syphilis rates have been increasing across the country since 1997, when the incidence of the disease in Canada was so low, it had met the national goal of elimination.

NDP Leader Brian Mason criticized Liepert's comments to the health committee, saying the minister was trying to downplay a very serious situation.

"To suggest that what we're seeing in terms of the syphilis outbreak and the deaths of these newborns is just unavoidable outcome of the boom is unacceptable to me and a real rationalization of the situation," Mason said.

Liepert revealed he turned down a proposal earlier this year for a provincewide education campaign to help prevent syphilis because he didn't think it would be effective in targetting the high risk groups getting the disease.

After the committee meeting, Mason suggested the government's response was inappropriate.

"If it was babies of people from very high income groups, I think the reaction here would have been much different," Mason said. "I think there's a real discriminatory element to the reaction that the minister has taken."

Mason repeated his call for a broad public awareness campaign to prevent the disease.

The number of syphilis cases is once again on the decline, but Alberta health officials admit it will take time before it is completely eradicated.