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N.W.T. health officials using dating apps to combat syphilis outbreak

A 'dramatic increase' in syphilis rates since the beginning of 2019 has led to the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer to declare an outbreak of the STI in the territory.

N.W.T. has seen 28 reported cases of STI since Jan. 1, a 'dramatic increase,' most in Yellowknife

Dr. Kami Kandola, chief public health officer of the N.W.T., has declared an outbreak of syphilis in the N.W.T. (Walter Strong/CBC)

People who use dating apps in Yellowknife may be sharing more than they realize.

Syphilis infection rates have climbed dramatically in the Northwest Territories and in Yellowknife in particular, leading the chief medical health officer to declare an outbreak in the territory.

The N.W.T. has seen 28 reported cases of the sexually transmitted disease (STI) since Jan. 1, which the health department called a "dramatic increase," in a press release.

Demographically, the spike is among 20- to 30-year-olds in Yellowknife who are having unprotected sex, potentially with multiple partners who they may not know very well, according to Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer.

"The majority of people diagnosed live in Yellowknife and report heterosexual partners," Kandola said during a press conference Thursday.

"Anyone who is sexually active — especially people who have new or multiple sex partners and are not using protection — are at risk."

In this May 23, 1944 file photo, the organism treponema pallidum, which causes syphilis, is seen through an electron microscope. The N.W.T. has seen 28 new syphilis cases since the beginning of 2019. (The Associated Press)

Targeting Tinder and Grindr

Kandola did not explicitly identify dating apps as common denominators in the spike in cases — the common denominator is sexual habits — but she said Tinder and Grindr users are considered groups at risk for infection.

"Fifty per cent of [infected] people had multiple partners in the last six months," Kandola said. 

Kandola said the health department will launch a prevention campaign soon on Tinder to alert users to potential downsides of casual, unprotected sex. It plans to have a presence on Tinder during the swiping activity that selects for potential partners. The details are not completely worked out, but Kandola said the aim is to make people pay attention.

"It is basically getting on Tinder and Grindr and setting up a mechanism that people can be alerted that we have syphilis and STIs on the rise in the N.W.T.," Kandola said. 

Fifty per cent of [infected] people had multiple partners in the last six months.- Dr. Kami Kandola

More alarming than the numbers is the difficulty health officials are having to trace transmission lines. Infected people report sex with partners who they cannot properly identify, so the Department of Health can't follow up to offer treatment.

Kandola said "mutual monogamy" is the best defence against sexually transmitted diseases, as well as condom use and other safe sex practices.

Rate of infection in women on the rise

Rates and cases of syphilis infection are reported in terms of infectious cases. The numbers reported are always an underestimate of the number of syphilis infections present in a population.

In the the N.W.T., there were five infectious cases in 2017, 11 in 2018 and 28 so far in 2019. The rate of syphilis infection is 90 per 100,000 people, almost four times what the rate was last year.

The national rate, reported by Health Canada in 2017, was 11 per 100,000 people.

In 2018, women made up 20 per cent of syphilis infection cases in the N.W.T. So far in 2019, women make up 40 per cent of the cases.

In the the N.W.T., there were five infectious cases in 2017, 11 in 2018 and 28 so far in 2019. The rate of syphilis infection is 90 per 100,000 people, almost four times what the rate was last year. (Government of the Northwest Territories)

Syphilis transmitted to baby

The disease is easily treated in the first year of infection with one shot of penicillin, but it's also infectious during that year. It can be transmitted through unprotected sex, and mothers can transmit syphilis to their baby during pregnancy, leading to death or severe chronic health conditions in their infant.

One case of congenital syphilis has been reported in the territory — the first since 2009. Citing privacy concerns, Kandola would not comment on the baby's condition now.

Kandola said the territory will begin testing all pregnant women in the territory for syphilis infection at three stages during their pregnancies, regardless of their sexual history.

'The majority of people diagnosed live in Yellowknife and report heterosexual partners,' Dr. Kandola said during a press conference Thursday. (Walter Strong/CBC)

She's encouraging anyone engaged in risky behaviour, including casual unprotected sex, to arrange for a blood test so health officials can get a handle on lines of transmission, and treat cases.

"People can have syphilis or another STI and not even know it," Kandola said. 

A hotline has been set up to call or text to arrange for testing and treatment anonymously, that is, without having to speak to a family or ER doctor first: 867-446-5113.

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