Spike in Manitoba babies treated for syphilis, substance abuse likely factor

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WINNIPEG _ At least 10 infants have been treated for syphilis in Manitoba in the last six months and the public health office says the methamphetamine crisis could be exacerbating the outbreak.

The number of people with syphilis has nearly tripled since 2014 _ to 350 from 118. For women, it’s gone to 168 from 16 in four years.

Michael Isaac, Manitoba’s acting chief public health officer, says women can pass the bacterial infection on during pregnancy.

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Isaac says substance abuse and a lack of prenatal care were common factors in many of the cases.

The province is urging people to practise safe sex and to get tested. Women should seek regular prenatal medical care, especially if they are intravenous drug users.

“I think the injection drug use that we are seeing in Manitoba certainly is linked with crystal methamphetamine use,” Isaac said Monday.

“And we’ve noted that some of the moms with congenital syphilis have been using crystal meth and injecting drugs.”

Winnipeg’s police chief has said the skyrocketing use of meth is creating a crisis for police, treatment centres and health-care services. The Addictions Foundation of Manitoba has said meth use increased by more than 100 per cent in adults and nearly 50 per cent in youth since 2014.

All PACAF medical facilities are affected by the recall of the Hib vaccine and are currently experiencing an extreme shortage of the vaccination. 
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Angelique M. Perez)

Isaac said the rise in injection drug use is linked to the increase in blood-borne illnesses such as syphilis.

Syphilis can have a wide range of symptoms that can be confused with other conditions. Tests confirm whether a person has the infection and, once diagnosed, it is easily treated with penicillin.

“It’s a very treatable and preventable condition,” Isaac said.

If untreated, syphilis can be passed on before or during a pregnancy and can result in birth defects or stillbirth.

Congenital cases of syphilis were rare in Manitoba and Isaac said no babies were born with the infection for decades before 2015.

“We noticed in late 2018 and early 2019 a large increase in cases of congenital syphilis, especially the last six weeks.”

Of those mothers, Isaac said, 70 per cent were using drugs.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the outbreak is affecting hard-to-reach populations, in particular people with addictions, and that’s created a significant challenge. He said a plan has been developed by public health experts to increase testing and education, but there are not simple or easy solutions.

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Documents obtained by the Manitoba NDP in December have also shown a rise in communicable diseases such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and syphilis. NDP Opposition Leader Wab Kinew said the government has known about the connection with intravenous drug use but hasn’t acted on it.

“We need a safe injection site in Winnipeg. We need more harm reduction measures,” he said. “We also need to have a variety of public health outreach steps taken.”

Multiple provinces, including Alberta, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, are also seeing cases of congenital syphilis.