Syphilis Infection Rates in Alberta

Happy New Year! Have you had your syphilis test?

Just in case you were wondering, Alberta is the syphilis capital of Canada, a fact that crept into the news over the holiday with publication of a report called the Syphilis Outbreak in Alberta by the office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky and senior health bureaucrats were quoted intoning about how seriously the province takes this threat, how much money is being thrown into the fight (a measly $4 million), how hard-hitting and targeted our “awareness campaign” is, and how it’s not really our fault anyhow.

On the latter point, you see, the real reason for all this syphilis is an economy so robust that irresponsible young people from all over come here and, as it were, screw things up. So, as Ralph Klein might have said, Alberta’s 267 reported syphilis cases in 2009 were really the fault of “creeps and bums” from somewhere else.

All in all, then, this wasn’t too disastrous a PR hit for the province’s beleaguered health officials, presumably because everyone in the media was in a hurry to get home for the holidays and didn’t bother to check the files for past references to this story.

For example, while the media informed us the increase in syphilis cases was 9 per cent in 2009 over 2008, no one seems to have noted that the number of reported cases was up 99 and a quarter per cent over the past decade. The disease was almost eradicated in Canada after 1995, but, presumably, it’ll be on the increase elsewhere too, if only because of migration from Alberta.

What’s more, no one seems to have reported what the previous health minister, Ron Liepert, had to say about this particular health threat back in 2008, when the government’s self-described vigorous anti-syphilis campaign, which appears to have had no effect whatsoever at slowing rates of infection, was just getting under way.

Alert readers will recall that Liepert, who is now minister of energy and still an influential member of Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative cabinet, refused to support a general province-wide campaign to raise awareness because syphilis victims were mainly people whom he reckoned didn’t take enough responsibility for their own behaviour.

Here’s what Liepert said in the Legislature on Nov. 6, 2008, according to Hansard: “We really have to ensure that people accept some personal responsibility in this area.”

Three days earlier, he told the province’s Standing Committee on Health: “The decision to not proceed (with a broad-based syphilis awareness campaign) at that time was my decision.”

Even back then, it was important to the Conservative government to make the point the problem wasn’t their fault: “We’ve had a high degree of workers in this province, more than the average norm nationally, who would be in work camps, would be working in the oil fields,” Liepert told the Standing Committee on Health. “We also have had a situation where you have a lot of disposable income. A lot of not-good things happen when that is the case.”

In other words: Creeps and bums … plus too much money. What can you do?

The ever-diplomatic Liepert also suggested that Albertans ought to “know who your partner is sleeping with.” (Other than you, that is, he presumably meant.)

Liepert told the Edmonton Journal on Aug. 15, 2008: “You have to remember, 95 per cent of Albertans are not impacted by (syphilis). I’m not necessarily going to subscribe to a province-wide ad campaign that could be communicating more to senior citizens than it is to street workers.”

As the NDP pointed out at the time, and the Medical Officer of Heath’s report now confirms, syphilis hits more than high-risk groups — striking babies and the elderly too. According to the report, the number of cases has been rising steadily ever since Liepert’s remarks, and continues to rise, in all segments of society.

The lingering effects of Liepert’s questionable health care leadership can be observed several places in the report, which is careful to tippy-toe around the need for a widely disseminated awareness campaign like the one the former health minister pulled the plug on in 2008.

“Targeting the high risk sub-populations for prevention of transmission should reduce or eliminate transmission to the larger community,” the report says at one point. “While the syphilis outbreak is deeply entrenched in the population as a whole, considerable effort must be made to target interventions to specific high risk groups,” it says elsewhere. (Emphasis added.)

This isn’t a knock at the idea of informing high-risk groups. It is a knock at dangerously de-emphasizing a general information campaign aimed at all Albertans so as not to upset the famously thin-skinned Liepert, which is what one suspects is going on here.

Indeed, as the report explains usefully elsewhere, “No segments of the population are spared from contracting syphilis. The disease is being found in young children under one year of age; teenagers as young as 14; seniors as old as 84; university students and professionals.”

And I guess that goes for you, too, out there in the rest of Canada, if your partner, unbeknownst to you, is sleeping with an Albertan.

Also back in 2008, the Alberta NDP suggested Premier Stelmach call an inquiry into the province’s handling of the syphilis epidemic. “An inquiry will yield facts regarding the failure of Alberta Health and Wellness to effectively manage the syphilis outbreak, answer questions surrounding the deaths of five babies from congenital infection, the unexplained departure of public health doctors and allegations of ministerial interference with their efforts to promote a province-wide syphilis awareness campaign,” NDP Leader Brian Mason said at the time.

That idea wasn’t half bad, but don’t bet on it happening, for obvious reasons. Indeed, don’t bet on hearing much more about this than the odd cheery press release, timed to come out when something is happening the media is more interested in.

This post also appears in David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary. Graphic copied from “the Syphilis Outbreak in Alberta” by the office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health of Alberta.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...