The NWT’s chief public health officer is urging residents to get tested for syphilis.

An outbreak of the bacterial infection in the territory is growing at an alarming rate that is “consistently and significantly higher than the national average.”

“Syphilis is a treatable infection that usually spreads through unprotected oral, genital or anal sex with an infected person. The infection can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy,” the Department of Health stated. “The first sign of infection is usually a painless sore on the genitals, anus, or inside of the mouth that usually goes away and is easy to miss. Left untreated, syphilis can cause serious health problems, or even death.”

Going back to Aug. 22, 2019, the chief public health officer had declared a syphilis outbreak in the NWT after having seen a dramatic increase in rates since Jan. 1, 2019. According to information from the Department of Health on July 19, 2022, syphilis rates in the territory increased 253 per cent between Jan. 1, 2019 to April 1, 2022.

Between Jan. 1, 2021 and August 3, 2021, there were 37 reported cases of syphilis, with the majority (78 per cent) of those cases in Yellowknife, representing a “significant rate increase.”

Only Manitoba, Nunavut, Saskatchewan have higher rates of the infection, the Government of Canada’s Public Health Agency stated.

As of July 19, 2022, rapid tests were brought in to the NWT to combat the outbreak. The tests “require only a simple finger-prick blood sample and show results within 15 minutes, instead of requiring a physician to order bloodwork to be completed in a lab,” according to the Department of Health.

Outbreak affects young people

“One of the NWT cases included a newborn that was diagnosed with congenital syphilis,” the department reported. “This is the first case of congenital syphilis in NWT since 2009 and occurs when a mother passes the syphilis infection on to her baby during pregnancy. It can cause very serious health issues, including stillbirth, neonatal death or severe chronic health conditions.”

Those infected have an increased risk of contracting or spreading HIV.

Antibiotic treatment can cure syphilis, preventing worse, long-term results.

“Not every infected person will have symptoms. The only way to know definitively whether you have syphilis is to get tested,” the Department of Health advised.

How to prevent spread

If sexually active, the department recommends that you:

-Use condom protection

-Limit and know your sexual partners

-Get tested for syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections every time you have a new sexual partner. If you are not in a monogamous relationship, you should get tested more often.

“If you are pregnant, you should be tested for syphilis at least three times: in the first trimester, at 28-30 weeks and around the time of delivery. If you are thinking about getting pregnant, it is strongly recommended that you take a syphilis test first.“

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