'Alarming rates' of syphilis and gonorrhea continue in Alberta

The numbers of sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis and gonorrhea continue to rise at "alarming rates" in Alberta, health officials say.

Number of cases of syphilis almost 10 times what they were in 2014

An illustration of the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium that causes gonorrhea. (Shutterstock)

The numbers of sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis and gonorrhea continue to rise at "alarming rates" in Alberta, health officials say.

An alert was sent last week to Alberta Health Services staff warning the province is in the midst of "an ongoing syphilis and gonorrhea outbreak."

Gonorrhea cases more than doubled from 1,900 cases in 2014 to more than 5,000 cases in 2018, while syphilis cases increased from 160 in 2014 to more than 1,500 cases in 2018, the alert said.

Twenty-five infants have been diagnosed with congenital syphilis since 2015, with 60 per cent of those cases in the Edmonton zone, the alert said.

The notice "strongly recommends that primary care providers talk to their patients about sexual health" and lists steps on how best to do that.

Rates rising across Alberta

While sexually transmitted infection numbers are highest in Edmonton they are also rising across the province, said David Strong, medical health officer for the provincial communicable disease program.

"The rates are rising in other parts of the province, too," Strong said Friday. "There's no one population syphilis is circulating in."

The higher infection rates in Edmonton are mostly being found in the city's downtown core among the "more marginalized population," he said.

The number of sexually transmitted infections is on the rise in Alberta. (CBC News)

While there are no new campaigns planned to get people to use condoms or get regular testing, work being done with "community-based partners" will be ramped up, Strong said.

While testing and treatment for STIs can be simple, some people have difficulty accessing the primary health services that provide it, he said.

The plan is to expand services that allow health officials to "meet people where they're at," essentially bringing the lab to them, he said.

Congenital syphilis 'alarming'

While the increase in gonorrhea and syphilis cases is concerning, it's the increase in congenital syphilis cases, where a pregnant woman passes the infection on to her unborn child, that Strong said he finds most alarming.

The infection can cause an unborn child to be stillborn, or suffer neurological or liver damage, or can harm the cardiovascular system, he said.

There have been two fetal deaths linked to congenital syphilis in Alberta since 2015.

"Generally speaking, in congenital syphilis cases you do see long-term things like developmental delay," Strong said. "You have lifelong effects from congenital syphilis."

Many pregnant women with syphilis don't seek medical care for pregnancy-related issues but tend to come in to emergency for urgent care, he said.

"So we're looking at opportunities to see whether they can be flagged in emergency to determine whether they've been tested for syphilis, and help to arrange for that if it hasn't been done," Strong said.