NWT corrects significant error in syphilis statistics reporting

After reviewing its data, the NWT’s health department says 20 percent of residents diagnosed with syphilis this year have unstable housing – not 60 percent, as the department initially told Cabin Radio in July.

Departmental spokespeople initially relied on the 60-percent figure to demonstrate what they called the “complex factors” underpinning a syphilis outbreak that has been ongoing in the territory for two years.

“The idea that a large proportion of people with syphilis in the NWT are under-housed illustrates the importance of the social determinants of health,” said deputy chief public health officer Dr Andy Delli Pizzi at the time.


However, earlier this week, the department said it had “reviewed the data” and only 20 percent of the reported 37 cases this year, not 60 percent, “were experiencing housing insecurity.”

Umesh Sutendra, a spokesperson for the department, said the error occurred “because individuals who identified multiple factors related to vulnerable housing were counted more than once.”

Sutendra said the 60-percent estimate was double-checked before it was shared with reporters and health practitioners. Only during a third, later check was the mistake caught.

“We recognize that the error which overestimated the number of people with syphilis who report housing instability may cause harm,” Sutendra said in an email, acknowledging that the mistaken calculation could lead to “the interpretation that syphilis primarily impacts those of lower socio-economic status individuals in NWT.”

Not only is this potentially harmful to how the NWT’s under-housed population is viewed, Sutendra wrote, but it could mean people who don’t consider themselves a part of that population may believe they are less at risk of contracting syphilis because they think the outbreak will not affect them.


“Our office communicated that all those who are sexually active in NWT are at risk,” Sutendra stressed.

Sutendra believes there was no implicit bias against the under-housed population when calculating the initial, inflated percentage.

The department referenced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action on health to “acknowledge that differences in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians are a direct result of previous Canadian government policies, including residential schools, and to close the gaps in health outcomes,” and said collecting data on socio-economic status and health outcomes is one way the health department is working to meet the calls to action.

“By collecting data on socio-economic status and health outcomes, we hope to continue to build the argument for decision-makers at all levels in NWT to address root causes of poor health and close the gap in health outcomes between those of differing socio-economic status, and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians,” Sutendra wrote.


Sutendra said the health department will learn from the error and improve how data is assessed and communicated, and apologized for any harm caused by the mistake.