Chief public health officer, Kami Kandola, has declared an outbreak of syphilis in the NWT. She said this puts the NWT on track for being four times higher than 2018.
Brett McGarry / NNSL photo

The chief public health officer, Kami Kandola, has declared a syphilis outbreak in the Northwest Territories.

The public health office reported in an Aug. 22 press conference that syphilis has seen a dramatic rise since the beginning of this year with 28 reported cases.

Around 70 per cent of these cases are in Yellowknife and almost all report heterosexual partners.

One case of note is a newborn being diagnosed with congenital syphilis, passed down from the mother. Congenital syphilis can cause serious health complications stillbirth, neonatal death, or severe chronic health conditions.

This is the first case of this kind since 2009.

As a response, every pregnant woman in the NWT will be tested at least three times during pregnancy.

“Anyone who is sexually active, especially those with new or multiple sex partners and are not using protection are at risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI),” said Kandola.

“Many STIs do not produce visible symptoms. People could have an STI and not even know it.”

Kondola recommends mutual monogamy and practicing safe sex with condoms to avoid infection.

Symptoms for syphilis include a painless sore or ulcer at site of infection, often in the boxer shorts area or mouth. After several weeks there may be a rash that spreads through the body to the palms and sole.

Other symptoms include swollen glands in the groin and neck and fever. Neurological symptoms may include meningitis and blurred vision.

Syphilis, if left untreated, can cause dementia, blindness and death. It can be passed through contact for up to one year.

Kandola says the average age of infection in these cases is around 20 to 30 in Yellowknife. About 50 per cent fall within that age range.

She says modern sexual behaviors are a factor in the STI outbreak.

“What we do know is that the number one risk factor in NWT is that about 50 per cent of cases have had multiple partners in the last six months,” said Kondola.

“Another factor is that these encounters have been casual and most important of all, in one third of cases people are unable or unwilling to identify their contacts.”

This will lead to to cases going unknown which can lead to undocumented transition.


Full scale response

The public health office will be rolling out multiple measures to get residents tested and treated for the STI.

As a part of an advertising campaign to reach potential carriers informative posters will be posted in bars, movie theaters, youth centres and other public places. Kandola also says there will be a focus on targeting youth with social media and with an awareness campaign on dating apps Tinder and Grinder.

Under the new treatment blitz, a public phone line will be made available for people to call or text for confidential information in Yellowknife at 867-446-5113.

“In addition, we are training primary and public health nurses to perform blood testing for blood-born STIs,” said Kandola. “This eliminates the need to book a second appointment for blood work for testing.”

Walk in clinic hours have been expanded in Yellowknife and more front line staff are being trained for STI testing.

This means easy access to blood work and same day appointments.

The public health office will also be introducing self-referral process, where people who think they have symptoms can get direct access to labs for testing without a more extensive appointment.

Kandola has confirmed that the 2019 syphilis rate in the NWT is on track for being four times higher than the 2018 rate.

This has been the highest rate of syphilis infection in the territory since 2009.

Brett McGarry

Brett McGarry came to Yellowknife in early 2019 after graduating from Humber College with an advanced diploma in journalism. After covering city council and local business as a reporter, Brett is now an...

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