If we need poster kids to warn about the dangers of a hookup culture that condones unsafe sex, or the perils of intravenous drug abuse, consider the 10 Manitoba babies born this year with syphilis.
For adults, syphilis is usually curable with a single dose of penicillin. For newborns infected with the disease, the consequences can include deformed bones, severe anemia, enlarged livers and spleens, jaundice, meningitis and brain and nerve problems such as blindness or deafness.
The afflictions suffered by these innocent victims is heartbreaking, but babies are only part of the syphilis outbreak in Manitoba that has seen reported cases rise from 118 in 2014 to 350 in 2018. Manitoba is on target for 600 diagnoses in 2019.
Since the current outbreak began in 2014, the infection had mainly been transmitted between men having sex with men; recently, it has crossed that demographic boundary and spread to heterosexual people and women. The number of reported syphilis cases among women in Manitoba has jumped from 16 in 2014 to 168 in 2018.
Medical officials cite two possible reasons: an increase in people sharing needles to inject illegal drugs, and a rise in unsafe sex practices driven partly by dating apps that offer easy access to multiple partners.
Dr. Michael Isaac, Manitoba’s acting chief provincial public health officer, pointed to a spike in intravenous drug use, including crystal methamphetamine. A needle and syringe used by someone with syphilis can infect a second person who uses the same equipment.
In New Brunswick, where there also is a rise in sexually transmitted infections, chief medical officer Dr. Jennifer Russell says social media connections enable anonymous sex while also making it hard for medical officials to track the people spreading diseases.
It’s easy to speculate about causes. It’s more difficult to implement solutions.
Sexually active people can virtually eliminate their chances of getting syphilis by adopting safer sex practices, including using condoms and getting regular STD testing. Intravenous drug users should not share or use dirty needles.
If it was that simple, if people safeguarded their actions with common-sense precautions, the syphilis rate in Manitoba wouldn’t be soaring. It’s when citizens act irresponsibly and endanger others that the responsibility of governments is to act.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen met with health officials last week and said Manitoba is forming a plan to deal with the public-health challenge of syphilis.
Unfortunately, the province’s plan is unlikely to include safe injection sites that would openly offer single-use needles, thereby preventing carriers of syphilis from sharing their infections via reused needles. Premier Brian Pallister has in the past resolutely resisted calls for safe injection sites.
The brainstorming on Broadway should include the possibility of a government-funded program to provide free condoms. When the Canadian Pediatric Society recommended on May 9 that all forms of contraceptives be available at no cost for Canadians under the age 25, the proposal was aimed mainly at reducing unplanned pregnancies. But the doctors’ group also mentioned protection against sexually transmitted infections as another benefit of making condoms free and widely available.
Some people would balk at the cost of the government providing free condoms, but it’s better to protect than regret. It would be a good investment if it helps stem an epidemic of Manitoba babies sentenced to a lifetime of suffering because they inherited syphilis.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.