Sask. battles surging syphilis rates in First Nations communities, health officer says

Dr. Ibrahim Khan says an increase in people getting tests and access to medical care delayed earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic have played a role in the jump in reported syphilis cases this year. (Radio-Canada - image credit)
Dr. Ibrahim Khan says an increase in people getting tests and access to medical care delayed earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic have played a role in the jump in reported syphilis cases this year. (Radio-Canada - image credit)

Saskatchewan is battling a surge in syphilis cases, particularly among First Nation communities.

The province reported 411 cases of the sexually transmitted disease in Indigenous communities from Jan. 1 to June 30 this year — a more than 900 per cent jump from 40 cases reported during the same period in 2019, according to Dr. Ibrahim Khan, a regional medical health officer for Indigenous Services Canada.

"We are very concerned.… Many of these people are either homeless or in a very troubling socioeconomic status and they don't have access to care," Khan told CBC News Wednesday.

The COVID-19 pandemic and increased testing played a major role in the jump in syphilis cases this year, he said.

"There were tremendous restrictions and isolation, and people could not go to get screened and get their blood work done and get to see their doctor" earlier in the pandemic, said Khan, and that led to increased efforts to screen and test people for the disease in the first half of this year.

Syphilis is preventable and treatable. It can first appear as painless open sores usually in the genital area and can be cured with antibiotics. Left untreated, the infection can lead to permanent neurological issues and death.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says infectious syphilis rates have gone up substantially across the country over the past decade, and many outbreaks have been reported in the past five years.

Saskatchewan's rate of syphilis cases climbed by 891 per cent from 2016 to 2020, the health agency says.

The province's syphilis rates are routinely two to three times higher than the national rate, and the rates are significantly higher among First Nations. That's also the case for HIV and tuberculosis infections.

In 2019, an outbreak was declared in north-central Saskatchewan after 21 cases were confirmed from August to November.

In 2020, the rate of syphilis was 308.8 cases per 100,000 people among First Nation communities, compared to a rate of 24.6 per 100,000 for Canada, according to data provided by the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Indigenous Services Canada.

The First Nations rates were around 13 times higher than the national rate, and four times higher than the Saskatchewan rate in 2020.

The province continues to see a surge and reported a rate of 633.2 cases per 100,000 people for syphilis last year among First Nation communities.

Beardy's and Okemasis' Cree Nation, about 80 kilometres north of Saskatoon, is among the communities now seeing a jump in infections. It issued a health notice on Tuesday to raise awareness.

"We have some upcoming information sessions, Facebook live sessions to answer questions … and testing days," the leadership team wrote.

Increase across Sask.

Khan noted that there's an increase in syphilis across Saskatchewan, not just among First Nations.

"The amount of infection is certainly very much concentrated in Indigenous communities, but it is equally high in Indigenous people who live off reserve or other people who live in urban cities and towns," he said.

Indigenous Services Canada is working with medical health officers in Saskatoon, Regina, Battleford and Yorkton among other cities, said Khan.

Panom Pensawang/Shutterstock
Panom Pensawang/Shutterstock

He also said more pregnant women in Saskatchewan are getting infected, a particular concern because pregnant women with syphilis can pass the disease on to their unborn child, sometimes causing birth defects or death.

Khan said he's especially worried about the access to testing for prenatal Indigenous women.

"That is the group that is hardest to reach or has the hardest trouble to barriers to treatment are screening clinics," he said.

"We really need to be focused this summer to reach out to people who are at risk or who need to be looked after and treated."