Winnipeg’s Syphilis rates ‘increasing exponentially’

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Winnipeg’s health region is facing an “exponential” increase in sexually transmitted blood-borne infections, according to a new community health assessment.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority report, released this week, notes what it labels a “dramatic rise” in those infections, including a 394% increase in syphilis, a 297% increase in gonorrhea and a 20% spike in chlamydia cases, all between 2014 and 2018.

Gina Trinidad, the WRHA’s chief health operations officer for continuing care and community health services, said the region hasn’t seen a spike this large before.

“It is increasing exponentially,” said Trinidad.

The report notes the high level of infections also doesn’t appear to be letting up this year.

“Case counts continue to rise in 2019, imposing a substantial burden on public health resources. The root causes of the increase need to be investigated and addressed,” the report states.

In February, the province’s chief public health officer warned that a syphilis outbreak was increasingly affecting women and babies, while Manitoba’s total number of syphilis infections shot up from 118 in 2014 to 350 in 2018.

At the time, Dr. Michael Isaac said 70% of the congenital cases involved pregnant women who used substances or injected drugs, such as meth. Trinidad agreed increases in substance use appear to contribute to the outbreak.

“We are trying to manage an increased substance use issue within Manitoba, but this is also across Canada as well, specifically around methamphetamine use,” she said.

To reduce the risk, Trinidad said the WRHA is attempting to improve access to clean needles, infection testing and public health nurses. She said that includes a healthy sexuality and harm reduction team that ventures into the community to help at-risk people.

The WRHA said it distributed about 1.7 million needles between April and November of this year, in addition to 2.2 million handed out the previous fiscal year.

The WRHA’s community health assessment reports on a wide range of wellness factors and also offered the following local region findings:

  • Immunization coverage rates remain below national targets, with 58.2% of adults 65 or older getting a seasonal flu shot in 2017-18, while the national coverage goal is 80%.
  • Kids also fall behind on vaccination rates. Less than 65% of kids were up-to-date with measles, mumps and rubella vaccine by age 17. The national goal is to achieve 95% vaccination among kids at least seven years old.
  • The infant mortality rate decreased from 5.8 per 1,000 live births to 4.7 per 1,000 live births, between the 2007 to 2011 period and that of 2012 to 2016.
  • The annual birth rate in Manitoba decreased, from 58.1 live births per 1,000 women in 2011-12 to 55.5 live births per 1,000 women in 2016-17.