Winnipeg's syphilis outbreak getting worse, health authority says

Winnipeg's years-long syphilis outbreak seems to only be getting worse, health officials say.

More than 600 diagnoses of sexually transmitted infection expected in 2019, up from more than 400 in 2018

A spike in syphilis rates in Winnipeg will not recede anytime soon, suggests a new memo from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. It expects to track 600 cases of the sexually transmitted infection this year, up from just over 100 in 2017. (MediaForMedical/UIG/Getty Images)

Winnipeg's years-long syphilis outbreak seems to only be getting worse, health officials say.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says it is on pace to track more than 600 diagnoses of the sexually transmitted infection in 2019, according to an alert issued to staff last month.

The projection is higher than the more than 400 cases reported in 2018, according to the memo, which is almost four times more than the number recorded yearly in 2015, 2016, or 2017.

The health authority has publicly sounded the alarm over a syphilis outbreak for months, which it says is disproportionately affecting people who live in the inner city and methamphetamine users.

'Rapidly evolving outbreak'

The latest memo, tabled by the provincial New Democrats Wednesday at the Manitoba Legislature, described a "rapidly evolving outbreak of infectious syphilis" that must be addressed. 

"The outbreak is showing no signs of an abating trajectory, and underscores the increasing complexity being reported by WRHA public health nurses," the memo states.

The document notes a trend of people reporting multiple infections.

Eleven people have been diagnosed with both HIV and syphilis since 2018, mostly young to middle-age men and young women. The individuals predominantly lived in the inner city, and reported housing insecurity, methamphetamine use and incarceration. 

We're not satisfied where these rates are.- Health Minister Cameron Friesen

The health authority also said that six people reported both HIV and tuberculosis in early 2019.

Newborns are also being diagnosed with syphilis at concerning rates, the WRHA's note says. The health authority says at least three cases of congenital HIV cases have been reported in 2019 and 14 congenital syphilis cases have been reported since 2015 — most of which occurred in 2018.

The disabling and life-threatening disease can be transmitted by a mother during pregnancy.

"There should be zero cases of congenital syphilis and zero cases of congenital HIV!" the report says definitively. 

Health Minister Cameron Friesen says the chief provincial public health officer is looking at new strategies to help those most at risk from Winnipeg's syphilis outbreak. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the province is trying to stem the increase. He had a meeting on Tuesday with the chief provincial public health officer, who reiterated his concern. 

"There is a plan to escalate tactics and mobilize a workforce to be able to even more effectively engage with some of these subpopulations who are using illicit drugs in ways that are very unsafe and that do contribute to a public health challenge," he said.

Leadership needed: Kinew

"There are efforts underway," Friesen added. "We're not satisfied where these rates are."

NDP Leader Wab Kinew says it's clear the addictions crisis in Manitoba has become a public health crisis, and the government isn't doing enough. 

"The same way that we would expect the premier to show leadership if there is an emergency like a flood, we should expect the premier to show leadership on this issue," he said. 

The health authority's memo says the rate of syphilis in Winnipeg was 87 per 100,000 people in 2018, which is almost nine times higher than the 9.9 people per 100,000 people the city averaged between 2012 to 2016.


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at