Most new syphilis cases in the NWT involve people without adequate housing

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The deputy chief public health officer of the Northwest Territories says the majority of syphilis cases in a recent spike are in people who do not have adequate housing.

Dr. Andy Delli-Pizzi says most cases are in Yellowknife – about 80 percent of all cases – and 60 percent of the territory-wide cases are in the under-housed population.

Health officials recently warned residents of an outbreak of a sexually transmitted infection in the territory that has continued since 2019. Syphilis can cause serious long-term illness if left untreated.

Delli-Pizzi says people can reduce their risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections by using condoms and getting tested. But he says the rate of infection in the homeless population also relates to broader social issues.

“These protective social determinants of health are things like housing and social networks and education and income,” said Delli-Pizzi.

“So when we start to lose these protective social determinants, we risk all kinds of health problems, including sexually transmitted infections. “

Delli-Pizzi said the syphilis epidemic appeared to level off in 2020, but there is now a slight increase in cases. In the first seven months of 2021, 37 cases of syphilis were reported. That’s an increase of around 50% from 2019, when the epidemic first started.

“There is no doubt that this was interrupted during the pandemic, but we have to restart communications to educate people and continue to build their personal strength to try to protect themselves,” he said.

“It means healthy sexual behavior, the use of condoms, and most importantly, you know, getting tested if you have any problems.”

Health officials have set up a dedicated and confidential phone number in Yellowknife to provide counseling to people as well as rapid testing. Clinic opening hours have also been extended and testing for pregnant women has been improved.

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