The number of babies born with syphilis in Canada is rising at a far faster rate than recorded in the United States or Europe, an increase public health experts said is driven by increased methamphetamine use and lack of access to the public health system for Indigenous people.
While syphilis has made a global resurgence over the last five years, Canada is an outlier among wealthy nations in its rate of increase — 13-fold over five years, according to Health Canada. The incidence of babies born with syphilis reached 26 per 100,000 live births in 2021, the most recent year available, up from two in 2017, according to the Health Canada data.
That total is on track to increase further in 2022, according to the preliminary government data obtained by Reuters.
Babies with congenital syphilis are at higher risk of low birth weight, bone malformations and sensory difficulties, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Syphilis in pregnancy is the second-leading cause of stillbirth worldwide, the WHO said.
Yet congenital syphilis is easily preventable if an infected person gets access to penicillin during their pregnancy.
Among the G7 group of wealthier nations for which data is available, only the United States had a higher incidence of syphilis at birth: 74 per 100,000 live births in 2021, triple the rate in 2017, according to preliminary figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There were 2,677 cases of congenital syphilis in the U.S. in 2021 for a population of 332 million, according to preliminary CDC data. Canada had 96 cases for a population of 38 million, according to Health Canada.
People experiencing poverty, homelessness and drug use, and those with inadequate access to the health system, are more likely to contract syphilis through unsafe sex and pass it to their babies, public health researchers said.
“In high-income countries you see it in pockets of disadvantaged populations,” said Teodora Elvira Wi, who works in the WHO’s HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted infection program.
“It’s a marker of inequality. It’s a marker of low-quality prenatal care.”
Lack of support for Indigenous communities
What sets Canada apart are Indigenous populations who experience discrimination and often have poor access to health and social services, said Sean Rourke, a scientist with the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, who focuses on prevention of sexually transmitted disease.
“It’s just the whole system, and all the things that we’ve done in bad ways not to support Indigenous communities,” he said.
Health Canada told Reuters it has dispatched epidemiologists to help provinces contain the increase in congenital syphilis. Spokesperson Joshua Coke said the federal government is expanding testing and treatment access in Indigenous communities.
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Tessa, an Indigenous 28-year-old woman who asked to be identified only by her middle name, said she had a years-long crystal meth addiction and was homeless when she got pregnant in Saskatoon.
“I would be walking down the street just crying: ‘Why am I living like this?'” she told Reuters.
She said she received no prenatal care until she went into labour in November, which is when she tested positive for HIV and syphilis during a routine test.
Her daughter was prescribed a 10-day course of antibiotics, administered by IV, and is now healthy, Tessa said. But she still thinks about the difficulties she experienced in accessing prenatal care.
“Having transportation, maybe, and a place to live, and being sober, probably would have helped, big time,” she said.
Susanne Nicolay, nurse lead at Wellness Wheel clinic in Regina, which serves Indigenous and vulnerable populations, said providers needed to do more to expand access to health care.
“The system always talks about patients that are hard to reach. But I think it’s health providers that are hard to reach,” she said.
A lot needs to go wrong for a baby to be born with syphilis, said Jared Bullard, a Manitoba pediatrician who has been researching babies born with syphilis since 2021 in an ongoing study for the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“It’s pointing at multiple failures along the path,” he said.
In Canada, the rise in babies born with syphilis is concentrated in the three Prairie provinces: Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Prairie provinces have higher crystal meth use and remote and Indigenous populations who may have trouble accessing health care, Bullard said.
Manitoba recorded the highest rate, with about 371 cases per 100,000 live births in 2021.
The province said in an emailed statement that it is expanding training for health-care providers in addressing sexually transmitted infections, encouraging frequent testing and early treatment. It is digitizing its records of STIs.
Saskatchewan has launched a public awareness campaign urging people to practise safe sex and get tested, said Dale Hunter, a spokesperson for the provincial health ministry. The province had an incidence of 185 cases of congenital syphilis per 100,00 live births in 2021.
Alberta said women aged 15-29 made up more than half of what it called a “significant increase” in syphilis rates. “The reasons for the increase are not fully known, but it is likely that a variety of factors have contributed to this rise,” said Alberta Health Services spokesperson James Wood.
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In preliminary results of a study of 165 infants exposed to syphilis, Bullard and fellow pediatrician Carsten Krueger found at least two-thirds were born to women reporting a history of substance abuse.
About 45 per cent of the women identified as Indigenous and another 40 per cent had no ethnicity recorded. Indigenous people make up about five per cent of the Canadian population, according to census data.
About a quarter of the people in the study did not get tested because they got no prenatal care; about one-fifth of those who tested positive did not get treated. Bullard said he has also seen people get treated early in pregnancy and then get re-infected.
Public health researchers and clinicians said the rates of congenital syphilis began increasing before the pandemic and worsened as public health agencies diverted resources to COVID-19 testing and other pandemic-related health measures.
“All of the social circumstances that contributed to this have just gotten worse over the pandemic,” said Ameeta Singh, an infectious diseases specialist with an HIV/STI practice in Edmonton.
This month, Health Canada approved a syphilis and HIV test that can provide results in less than a minute, allowing providers to begin treatment right away.
Some public health researchers and providers are urging the Canadian government to buy and distribute the tests.
“We probably need a million tests to get out there around the country,” Rourke said. “The solution’s right in front of us.”
Health Canada did not respond when asked about purchasing test kits.