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Syphilis cases up over 600 per cent in Sask. First Nations communities, says public health doc

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Indigenous Services Canada’s top public health physician in Saskatchewan is sounding the alarm over growing rates of syphilis in First Nations communities in the province.

Dr. Ibrahim Khan says the statistics from 2022 broke all previous records.

“There were 850 infectious syphilis cases reported,” said Khan. “Which, in epidemiological terms, is a 639 per cent increase in the number of infectious cases. We also had, unfortunately, 13 early congenital syphilis cases, and one congenital syphilis case is an alarm for any health system.”

Indigenous Services Canada declared an outbreak in 2019 across all Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan due to disproportionately higher rates compared to the provincial rate.

Khan says the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic made the issue worse due to the lack of testing, treatment, and prescriptions available.

“There were constant restrictions,” Khan told CTV News. “People were in isolation, you couldn’t see your doctor, you couldn’t get a prescription.”

But he says the majority of the 81 First Nations in the province are leading awareness, testing and treatment campaigns this summer, in partnership with other health organizations.

“Restrictions are gone, the mandates are gone, and there’s a little bit of freedom for the healthcare staff on the ground to do more testing, more awareness, and particularly targeting the youth in schools, all segments of the population.”

Another goal of the campaign is to ensure pregnant women can be screened for high-risk infections that could affect their baby, says Khan.

“Linking people to care, most of our Indigenous clients don’t have a family doctor,” he said. “And many of these pregnant women may not see a doctor. And if you don’t see a doctor, of course you’re not screened for all these high risk infections that jeopardize the health of the baby and mom after delivery. So that is a key priority for this summer.”

The Saskatchewan Prevention Institute says syphilis, if treated early, is curable.

But it can lead to serious harm in babies, including to their eyes, ears, teeth and bones.

Dr. Khan says the goal is zero cases, and it’s within reach.

“We have successful examples across Saskatchewan that were internationally recognized, so yes, we have championed communities that have achieved zero in the past couple of years,” said Khan.

“That is the hope.”

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