Syphilis in Alberta, Canada

December 14, 2007

The number of Alberta residents with syphilis is rising and pregnant women are transmitting the sexually transmitted disease (STD) to their infants, who often succumb from the disease. This is according to Dr. Vivien Suttorp, the South Zone Medical Officer of Health.

"Sometimes if the family doesn’t want the baby tested then we'll never know if it was syphilis," said Suttorp. "But there have been babies born to syphilis-positive mothers here in the south."

Congenital Syphilis

If an infected infant should survive, symptoms confirming the presence of congenital syphilis may not show up for as long as two years. Suttorp says that babies with the condition suffer from a multitude of health problems including anemia, bone issues, liver and spleen problems, neurological issues, and lesions of the skin and mucus membranes. Doctors treat them with penicillin, but this can't resolve the developmental problems that began during pregnancy, just as doctors can't treat alcohol-induced fetal alcohol syndrome after the fact. Babies who have congenital syphilis will continue to have problems.

Those women who are pregnant with a preexisting case of untreated primary syphilis will pass their disease on to their infants in 70%-100% of cases. Worse yet, 40% of pregnancies in which the mother has infectious syphilis will result in the death of the fetus.

Unwitting Victims of Syphilis

The highest rate of syphilis in Canada during 2009 was found in Alberta with 263 cases. The south zone, which combines the former Chinook and Palliser health regions, seems to have the highest rate of syphilis in the province. Suttorp says the rate is highest among those in the sex trade as well as for the middle-aged men who use their services. The partners of these men are sometimes unwitting victims to the infectious disease, as well.

It's important to note that these numbers don't provide an accurate assessment of how many people actually have syphilis, since the disease has four stages, and often, only those with first stage disease seek help. Health care workers are also trying to get the word out that having syphilis doesn't grant future immunity against the disease. Syphilis responds well to penicillin, but a person can be re-infected by having sex with an infected individual.

Pregnant women in the Alberta area are given routine testing for syphilis at three different intervals, with the last test occurring just before delivery. However, not all women seek or receive proper prenatal care and may fall under the radar, putting their infants at risk for congenital syphilis.

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