N.W.T. campaign to curb syphilis continues to roll out as more cases emerge

N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola is asking residents to do what they can to strop the spread of syphilis in the Northwest Territories. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)
N.W.T. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola is asking residents to do what they can to strop the spread of syphilis in the Northwest Territories. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)

The N.W.T.'s chief public health officer is asking people to take extra care to prevent the spread of syphilis as children are being born with the congenital form of the disease.

Since July, two babies have been born with congenital syphilis, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola said in an interview with CBC, bringing the total to four since the syphilis outbreak was declared in 2019.

Congenital syphilis is when a mother passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy. If left untreated, it can lead to blindness, deafness or deformed bones in the child.

"We've had at least nine women who have tested positive for syphilis in their pregnancy, and we're also now seeing syphilis reach the street-involved communities and that makes it really difficult to identify cases and contact," Kandola said.

What is congenital syphilis?

Congenital syphilis is a disease that occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it can cause:

  • deformed bones

  • severe anemia (low blood count)

  • enlarged liver and spleen

  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)

  • brain and nerve problems, like blindness or deafness

  • meningitis and skin rashes

Kandola is urging people to get tested at least three times during their pregnancy.

"The problem with syphilis is you can get treated and the treatment is effective, but if we don't treat the partners or the contacts, people can get reinfected and then get back to square one."

Working with vulnerable populations

The N.W.T.'s health department is working on solutions as syphilis spreads throughout the territory and into populations that may not access the health care system or who don't trust hospitals or clinics.

Those solutions include rapid syphilis tests that can be taken to the streets, and free condom stations.

The rapid tests were announced in July and started to hit the streets in Yellowknife last month. Results of the test are revealed in 15 minutes and so far 20 have been done, Kandola said, noting phase two of the rollout will bring rapid testing to Hay River, Whatì, Fort Smith, Fort Simpson, Fort Providence and Fort Resolution.

Earlier this week, the Department of Health and Social Services also announced 200 free condom dispensers will be installed in public locations across the territory. The goal is to have all dispensers in place by the holidays, Kandola said.

"The challenge that was identified was that condom access was limited, inconsistently available or non-existent in some communities," Kandola said.

While condoms do not protect 100 per cent against syphilis, Kandola said, when used consistently they do decrease the risk.

Side effects can be fatal if untreated

The chronic and infectious disease is preventable and treatable, but the territory has seen more than 300 cases in the last four years.

One theory for the rise in cases is that numbers are catching up after a lack of testing during COVID-19 restrictions.

"It's almost like having a small, local fire — as the cases go up, it gets more and more complicated to bring the cases back down because there are more people infected, more people haven't come forward [who] could be infected," Kandola said, noting the infection can be transmitted for up to a year.

There are several stages to the infection, Kandola explained. In the first stage, between 10 days to three months, a painless sore might develop; in the second stage, two to eight weeks, people could develop a rash or have flu like symptoms like fever, headache, fatigue, muscle pain and sore throat.

There's also a hidden stage where people might not have symptoms, and a tertiary stage where — if it's left untreated for a year or longer — people can develop blindness or mental health disorders, or have damage to the brain, heart, eyes and nervous system and even risk death.

Testing is key, Kandola said.

"The main thing is not everyone will be able to pick up that they have symptoms of syphilis. They may think it's something else, or they may not see that painless sore."