Congenital syphilis found in six newborns, officials say
Alberta has recorded six cases of life-threatening congenital syphilis in newborn babies this year, public health leaders announced Tuesday amid a worsening outbreak of sexually transmitted infections around the province.
“If untreated, this infection can cause deformed bones, jaundice, brain and nerve damage, meningitis and other serious health problems in the child,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, deputy chief medical officer of health for Alberta Health.
Congenital syphilis occurs when a pregnant woman who has contracted infectious syphilis passes the bacteria onto her unborn child.
Twenty-five Alberta babies were born with the disease between 2005 and 2010, nine of whom died. The last confirmed case in the province was in 2011, though a probable case was also identified in December 2015.
Hinshaw said the six babies belong to four mothers. Two of those mothers screened negatively for syphilis early in pregnancy, one mother was not screened at all and one arrived in Alberta in her last trimester of pregnancy.
None of the infants has died. Hinshaw declined to provide any further information about the cases, citing privacy rules.
Health leaders had feared a reappearance of congenital syphilis in Alberta ever since infectious syphilis cases started reaching outbreak levels in the spring of 2015. The disease has showed no signs of slowing down, as cases continued to climb through both 2016 and 2017.
Alberta recorded 369 syphilis cases as of Halloween this year, putting the province on course to surpass last year’s total of 410.
Gonorrhea rates have also skyrocketed to levels not seen since the late 1980s.
A total of 3,869 infections had been recorded by the end of October this year, already higher than last year’s tally of 3,707.
The highest caseloads have been in the Edmonton region.
When the outbreak was first announced, public health officials initially linked it to the emergence of social media sites used for anonymous sexual hookups. They vowed to use advertisements on those same social media services to raise awareness.
AHS said Tuesday the campaign met with some success, driving traffic to the sexgerms.com website and prompting more people to get tested. That, in turn, produced more positives and pushed up the infection rates.
However, progress from that campaign eventually stalled.
“The numbers keep going up so we have to try to do something different,” said Dr. Gerry Predy, senior medical officer of health for AHS.
The new strategy includes more collaboration with community agencies who already work with populations at risk of sexually transmitted infections, including street-involved youth or people without stable housing, he said.
Alberta Health Services officials say that while efforts to raise awareness of sexually transmitted illnesses made progress when the outbreak was first announced in 2015, the campaign’s effectiveness eventually stalled.