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Cases of babies born with congenital syphilis in N.W.T. doubled last year

N.W.T's Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola, pictured on Oct. 21, 2020. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)
N.W.T's Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola, pictured on Oct. 21, 2020. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)

The number of babies born with congenital syphilis in the N.W.T. have doubled since the territory launched a public health campaign in the fall of 2022.

That means over the past five years, a total of eight babies have been born with the disease.

At the time of the public health campaign, the territory was reporting four cases. Recent numbers from the territory's chief public health officer reveal another four babies have been born with the congenital form of the disease, which — if left untreated — can lead to blindness, deafness or deformed bones.

"This is something we are actively trying to prevent," Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer told the CBC.

"We've increased our prenatal testing to three times through the pregnancy and we're looking at creative ways to do outreach for the population that [is] most vulnerable, for the mothers who are at high risk for having babies born with congenital syphilis."

Congenital syphilis can be contracted when a mother passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy. In addition to the high risks for babies born with the disease, syphilis in pregnancy is the second leading cause of stillbirth worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Since the outbreak in the territory was declared in 2019, there have been more than 300 cases of syphilis recorded. Most of the cases are in Yellowknife, Kandola said, not naming any of the communities the infection can be found in due to the population size, but confirming syphilis can be found in every region.

"We actually have to raise awareness in every community, every region, because you can bring down cases in your particular community, but people can go to another community and get reinfected — syphilis doesn't have any borders," Kandola said.

Hundreds of condom dispensers installed in territory

Since the syphilis campaign launched in 2022, public health has hosted two pop-up clinics in the capital, brought rapid testing to communities and installed more than 300 free condom dispensers in public locations across the territory.

"That has been quite popular and we're continuously filling those," Kandola said.

Before the dispensers, there were also poster campaigns, radio ads, social media posts and even a bar campaign with specific coasters urging people to engage in safe sex and get regular testing.

In this May 23, 1944 file photo, the organism treponema pallidum, which causes syphilis, is seen through an electron microscope.
In this May 23, 1944 file photo, the organism treponema pallidum, which causes syphilis, is seen through an electron microscope.

In this May 23, 1944 file photo, the organism treponema pallidum, which causes syphilis, is seen through an electron microscope. (The Associated Press)

But public health is still exploring how to reach vulnerable populations, including those who may not access prenatal care, may be housing-insecure, struggling with substance misuse or suffering with intimate partner violence.

"It is a very unique population that needs to have some creative thinking about how to outreach and do appropriate testing and be able to take care of them, at the same time, protecting the babies from acquiring syphilis in utero," Kandola said.

Testing is key, CPHO says

When public health launched the campaign in the territory, Kandola said the N.W.T. had one of the highest rates of syphilis in the country, at about 10 times the national average. The year prior, in 2021, the territory had the second highest rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the country.

"It's not just within the Northwest Territories or Canada," Kandola said.

"A lot of things have changed in the last 10 to 15 years, there is social media, there is anonymous ways people can hook up, and if you do develop an STI, it is very difficult then to contact trace or let that person know."

Syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are all preventable and treatable.

Touch is likely the most finely developed sense at birth, with skin-to-skin contact seen to have benefits for both newborns and mothers.
Touch is likely the most finely developed sense at birth, with skin-to-skin contact seen to have benefits for both newborns and mothers.

There has been a sharp increase in cases of babies born with syphilis across Canada and the U.S. (Martha Irvine/Associated Press)

"We don't have a profile of who has an STI and who doesn't. A lot of times STIs can go undetected and the only way you know is to get a blood test for syphilis or to get testing for other STIs," Kandola said.

One of the misconceptions is people think they will only see sores or rashes on their genitals, Kandola said, but STIs can be passed through different types of sex, including oral, vaginal, anal and penial — meaning a person infected might develop sores where they cannot see.

Kandola said a good STI check-up would include oral swabs, anal swabs, along with a urine and blood test.