Canada is experiencing a concerning increase in the number of babies born with syphilis, at a far faster rate than other wealthy nations such as the United States and Europe. According to Health Canada, the incidence of babies born with syphilis has risen 13-fold over the last five years, reaching 26 per 100,000 live births in 2021, up from 2 in 2017. Furthermore, preliminary government data suggests that this number is likely to increase further in 2022.
Congenital syphilis poses a significant risk to newborns, including low birthweight, bone malformations, and sensory difficulties. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified syphilis in pregnancy as the second-leading cause of stillbirth worldwide. However, congenital syphilis is easily preventable if an infected person receives access to penicillin during pregnancy.
Canada’s increase in syphilis cases has been linked to the country’s growing methamphetamine use and a lack of access to the public health system for Indigenous people. Public health researchers have highlighted that people experiencing poverty, homelessness, drug use, and those with inadequate access to healthcare are more likely to contract syphilis through unsafe sex and pass it onto their babies.
Among the G7 nations, only the United States had a higher incidence of syphilis at birth, with 74 cases per 100,000 live births in 2021, triple the rate in 2017. However, the U.S. had 2,677 cases of congenital syphilis in 2021, for a population of 332 million, while Canada had only 96 cases for a population of 38 million.
This concerning increase in syphilis cases in Canada highlights the importance of access to healthcare and the need to address the underlying factors driving the spread of the disease. It is crucial to prioritize efforts to improve access to healthcare for all individuals, particularly those who are marginalized or vulnerable. Public health interventions that address drug use, poverty, and homelessness can also play a critical role in preventing the spread of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections.