The NWT’s chief public health officer, Kami Kandola, declared an outbreak of syphilis on Thursday, with Yellowknife the epicentre.
So how do you get tested?
If you’re 20 to 30, you’re considered the most likely to be infected – so you should probably get this done, even if you’re no fan of getting tested (it’s nobody’s favourite thing), and even if you doubt you have an infection.
“Anyone who is sexually active, especially people who have new or multiple sex partners and are not using protection, are at risk for getting the sexually transmitted infection,” Kandola told reporters on Thursday.
She says you should get tested even if you don’t have any of the symptoms of syphilis (a sore or an ulcer in your mouth or groin area, or a rash, enlarged glands, or even neurological symptoms or difficulty with your vision).
Here are the ways to book a test in Yellowknife. (For other NWT communities, stop in at your health centre and ask. They’re expecting and actively encouraging people to get tested, so there’s nothing to worry about.)
- Call or text 867-446-5113, a number dedicated to providing information about the outbreak and booking tests.
- Visit the primary care clinic at 4915 48 Street during walk-in hours, from 8am to 8pm on weekdays with a break for lunch. Walk-ins are also held on Saturdays between 10am and 4pm.
- Call the primary care clinic or Frame Lake community health clinic to book an appointment. (You can get same-day appointments.)
- If you have a family doctor, you can book an appointment with them.
The health department is also considering an even faster approach to STI screening called self-referral, where you can bypass the doctor’s office and go straight to the lab for screening, but that’s not yet available. (We’ll let you know if they introduce it.)
Syphilis is diagnosed using a blood test which needs to be sent to Alberta. You should expect it to take around a week to get results.
If the test is positive, you’ll be treated with an antibiotic – intramuscular penicillin – Kandola said.
In the first year of infection, one injection is needed. If it’s after the first year, you will need three injections spaced a week apart.
“If someone’s at high risk or if they’re a contact, we don’t wait for the blood test,” Kandola said. “We treat them, we take the blood, and that way we’re not waiting for a week and then someone’s at risk.”
Addressing reporters at a news conference on Thursday, Kandola said health officials will also try “targeted outreach” of people considered vulnerable like homeless youth, people at shelters, and those who may be struggling with issues more urgent than STI testing.
Kandola said a baby was recently born with congenital syphilis, passed from mother to child during pregnancy, for the first time in the NWT since 2009. In response, the chief public health officer announced, women will now be tested for STIs at minimum three times throughout their pregnancy. These tests will be timed with other routine tests.
Residents may also see ads from the health department pop up in their Tinder or Grindr dating apps, or at Yellowknife bars.
Why is syphilis on the rise?
Kandola said the NWT is not alone in experiencing a dramatic rise in cases of syphilis. A number of southern provinces and Nunavut have experienced outbreaks in recent years, as well as Alaska last year experiencing its worst outbreak of the STI in 40 years.
The chief public health officers says this is happening in Canada, and globally, because of a change in sexual behaviour and sexual practices.
In the NWT, 50 percent of reported cases had multiple partners in the past six months. A number of these sexual encounters are casual and in one-third of cases, people either could not or declined to identify with whom they had the encounter.
This makes the traditional approach to preventing the spread of STIs – contact tracing – less effective. Contact tracing involves mapping out a person’s sexual contacts and offering them treatment.
To get “ahead of the curve” of this most recent outbreak of syphilis, Kandola said multiple approaches are necessary.
“We have to do a combination of improving access to people to get tested, getting the information out there,” she said. “But also, we have to go out and find people who normally wouldn’t get into the healthcare system.”