Syphilis, other sexually transmitted infections spike in Alberta

Syphilis, other sexually transmitted infections spike in Alberta

As cases of sexually transmitted syphilis and gonorrhea continue to rise in Alberta, the province has also seen six cases where pregnant mothers passed congenital syphilis on to their babies in 2017.

Three of those cases were confirmed through lab tests while the other three were probable cases, meaning the mother and baby were both treated but no lab tests were conducted, according to Alberta Health Services.

Previously, there hadn't been a lab-confirmed case of infant syphilis in six years, according to AHS.

The infection can put a baby's health at serious risk. None of the babies have died in any of the six cases of congenital syphilis in 2017, according to AHS.

"It certainly can cause miscarriages. It can cause death. If syphilis is diagnosed quickly in the mother and treated, then it can be prevented," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta Health's deputy chief medical officer.

"That's really our aim is to be able to diagnose syphilis in women who are pregnant as quickly as possible and treat them as quickly as possible to prevent that infection passing on to the baby."

To prevent babies from being born with syphilis, AHS has created a dedicated prenatal syphilis nurse position.

"One nurse that would specifically work with physicians and other community groups to identify women at risk of syphilis and ensure that out staff can be proactive in trying to reach out to them and get them treated as soon as possible," explained Dr. Gerry Predy, Alberta's senior medical officer of health. 

"We've just implemented that and we'll see how it works."

Currently in Alberta, all pregnant mothers are tested for syphilis early in their pregnancy and before delivery of their baby.

Alberta Health is also updating its prenatal screening guidelines to recommend testing for gonorrhea and chlamydia in the first trimester and third trimester for women who are at higher risk of infection.

Likely to surpass 2016 STI numbers

In April 2016, the chief medical officer of health raised the alarm about sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates in Alberta, saying gonorrhea and syphilis were at "outbreak levels."

Alberta is projected to surpass those numbers in 2017.

"We stop this by making testing more available, treatment more available, by decreasing the stigma of people who have STIs," Hinshaw said.

For more information about STI testing, the province has created the website