What’s new in the province sexually transmitted infection report shows that the number of babies being born with syphilis in Alberta is increasing at a rate that experts say is unacceptable and alarming.
In Alberta, the rate of babies being born with syphilis has risen dramatically, from 30.8 per 100,000 in 2018 to 169.1 last year.
Fifty babies, almost a fifth of the cases, were stillborn between 2018 and 2022, the report says.
Calgary obstetrician Dr. Stephanie Cooper has seen the devastating effects of syphilis firsthand in that time.
“It’s absolutely unbearable,” said Cooper, who recalled a syphilis-related stillbirth last year.
“Watching a woman lose a baby to preventable causes is heartbreaking.”
Syphilis can cause serious health problems and stillbirths.
Expert says more disclosure is needed
Dr. Ameeta Singh, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said syphilis testing is a routine part of prenatal care, but Albertans struggling with substance use and unstable housing often don’t receive that support.
“If we catch them and treat them in the first half of the pregnancy, in the first 20 weeks, we can pretty well prevent the infection from being passed on to the baby,” Singh said.
“So the sooner we can provide testing and treatment, the better.”
Singh said rapid syphilis tests are available and work is underway to bring them to vulnerable Albertans.
“All pregnant women who access antenatal care are offered routine testing for syphilis, so the fact that we are seeing this now is really unacceptable,” Singh said.
More outreach is needed to bring the numbers down, Singh said.
In a statement, an Alberta Health spokesperson said it continues to monitor the rising rates of sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections in the province, particularly the continued rise in infectious syphilis which is experiencing a resurgence around the world.
“We continue to work with Alberta Health Services, the federal government and community organizations to explore strategies to make testing and treatment easier,” Andrew Livingstone, a spokesman for Alberta Health, said in a statement.
The reasons for the increase are not fully known, but a variety of factors likely contributed to the increase, Livingstone said.
“Including, but not limited to, a decline in public perception of risk, people not being diagnosed in a timely manner, dating apps becoming more popular, and people feeling less comfortable accessing health services during the pandemic,” he said.
Livingstone said the government “will continue to make targeted investments to prevent infections and provide comprehensive support for people living with these infections.”