Alberta’s opioid epidemic is creating a syphilis outbreak that’s infecting babies in the womb, causing stillbirths and severe disabilities, says a local health expert.
Ifeoma Achebe, medical officer of health for Alberta Health Service’s central zone, said the drug crisis in Alberta and across the globe has caused a comeback of a sexually transmitted disease that was once thought to be under control and on the way out.
People under the influence of drugs have impaired judgment and are having more unprotected sex, said Achebe.
Health experts believe this is causing a world-wide outbreak of a very old disease.
Syphilis, which causes brain deterioration and eventual death, has infected many people through the decades, including celebrities such as writer Karen Blixen, gangster Al Capone, African leader Idi Amin and French Impressionist artist Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec.
The health community had brought the disease under control with antibiotics. But Achebe said a more virulent strain of the bacteria that’s showing some drug resistance has now cropped up.
One of the biggest concerns is babies contracting the syphilis bacteria in utero.
Achebe said Alberta has had 12 cases of congenital syphilis show up in the past few years. These infants would have either been stillborn or entered the world with severe cognitive disabilities.
Christopher Wood, executive director of communicable disease control for Alberta Health Services, trained staff of Shining Mountains Living Community Services to do dry blood spot testing to detect for syphilis, hepatitis and HIV on Thursday at the Bower Ponds pavilion.
He feels this simple finger-poke test is a good way to reach people who are unwilling or unable to access mainstream health facilities.
Shining Mountains staff plan to offer this easy test to their Metis clients, who are less likely to go to a doctor’s office or a medical clinic.
Executive director Raye St. Denys said Red Deer’s 4,000 to 5,000 Metis people were among those historically driven “underground” by discrimination.
Many continue to feel uncomfortable accessing mainstream services. She recalled her father once went to see a doctor with a severe stomach flu, only to hear the physician ask “are you hung over?”
Despite mistrust of mainstream health institutions, she feels it’s important for people across all segments of society to get tested and help stop the spread of infectious diseases.
John Kim, chief of the National Laboratory for HIV Reference Services, said the biggest infectious disease central Albertans should worry about is hepatitis C, which far outstrips all others.
One reason it claims so many lives is that symptoms only crop up years after the virus has caused major liver damage. Often when symptoms manifest, it’s too late, said Kim, who advises all baby boomers to get tested for hep C.
Even those who didn’t use drugs or otherwise share body fluids might have accidentally been exposed in the past to medical equipment that wasn’t properly sterilized, he added.