Northwest Territories declares syphilis outbreak

A screengrab of a public health advisory issued by the territorial government on August 22, 2019
A screengrab of a public health advisory issued by the territorial government on August 22, 2019.

The NWT’s chief public health officer declared a syphilis outbreak on Thursday, reporting a “dramatic increase” in rates of the infection.

Syphilis is usually spread by sexual contact. It ordinarily causes a sore for some time after infection followed by a rash, while other symptoms can include hair loss, muscle aches, a fever, sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes.

On Thursday, the NWT government said 28 cases had been reported so far in 2019 with 70 percent of them identified in Yellowknife.

For the first time since 2009, one of those cases was a newborn with congenital syphilis – when a mother passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy.



Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, said her office had “directed a proactive public health response” that will initially focus on Yellowknife.

That response will include a dedicated STI hotline, rapid access to testing, more training for healthcare staff, enhanced testing for pregnant women, expanded walk-in clinic hours, and advertising through social media, in bars, and at youth centres.

Such is the perceived severity of the situation, the territory called a news conference for Thursday morning to address its declaration of a syphilis outbreak.

If untreated, syphilis can in its later stages – sometimes many years after the original infection – cause damage to the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints.



A briefing note issued by the territorial government suggests the NWT’s syphilis rate in the past three years has skyrocketed beyond the essentially stable rate across Canada as a whole.

Sixty percent of those reporting infection are male, the territory said.

Thursday’s outbreak declaration follows an earlier warning in April that rates of several sexually transmitted infections are “escalating.”

At the time, the NWT government said gonorrhoea rates in 2019 were now five times higher than the 2013 rate, and 17 times higher than the 2016 national rate.

Syphilis rates are seven times higher in the NWT than they were six years ago. However, the territory is not the only Canadian jurisdiction to declare an outbreak. Alberta did the same last month.