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Number of Alberta babies born with syphilis rising at alarming rate, experts say

The province’s new sexually transmitted infections report shows the number of Alberta babies born with syphilis is rising at what experts say is an unacceptable and alarming rate.

In Alberta, the rate of babies born with syphilis has jumped dramatically, from 30.8 per 100,000 in 2018, to 169.1 last year.

Fifty babies — nearly one-fifth of cases — were stillborn during 2018 and 2022, the report reads.

Calgary obstetrician Dr. Stephanie Cooper has seen the devastating effects of syphilis first-hand in that time.

“It is absolutely excruciating,” Cooper said, who recalled a syphilis-related stillbirth last year.

“Seeing a woman lose a baby due to a preventable causes is heartbreaking.”

Syphilis can cause serious health problems and stillbirths.

Expert says more outreach needed

University of Alberta infectious diseases specialist Dr. Ameeta Singh said syphilis testing is a routine part of prenatal care, but Albertans struggling with substance use and unstable housing don’t often get that support.

“If we reach them and treat them in the first half of the pregnancy — in the first 20 weeks — we can pretty well prevent the infection from being passed on to the infant,” Singh said. 

“So the earlier we can provide testing and treatment, the better it is.”.

A woman's headshot is pictured.
Infectious diseases expert Dr. Ameeta Singh says syphilis testing is a routine part of prenatal care, but Albertans struggling with substance use and unstable housing often don’t get that support. (Submitted by Dr. Ameeta Singh)

Singh said rapid syphilis tests are available, and work is underway to get them out to vulnerable Albertans.

“Every pregnant woman that accesses prenatal care is offered routine testing for syphilis, so the fact that we’re seeing this now is really unacceptable,” Singh said.

More outreach is needed to bring numbers down, Singh said.

In a statement, a spokesperson with Alberta Health said it continued to monitor the growing rates of sexually transmitted and bloodborne infections in the province, particularly the continuing rise of infectious syphilis which is seeing a resurgence around the globe.

“We continue to work with Alberta Health Services, the federal government, and community organizations to explore strategies to facilitate testing and treatment,” Alberta Health spokesperson Andrew Livingstone said in a statement.

The reasons for the increase are not fully known, but it’s likely a variety of factors contributed to the rise, Livingstone said.

“Including, but not limited to, a decrease in public perception of risk, individuals not being diagnosed in a timely manner, dating apps becoming more popular, and individuals feeling less comfortable accessing health services during the pandemic,” he said.

Livingstone said the government would “continue to make targeted investments to prevent infections and to provide wrap-around supports for people living with these infections.”

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