N.W.T. health workers are hosting a pop-up STI testing clinic in Yellowknife on Thursday, as the territory deals with an ongoing syphilis outbreak.
The clinic will provide rapid testing for STIs such as syphilis and HIV, without an appointment. Health staff will also be on hand to answer questions and promote sexual health. It’s being held Thursday to coincide with World AIDS Day.
The clinic at Centre Square Mall is also part of the roll-out of a limited supply of rapid syphilis tests, that began in the N.W.T. earlier this year.
“This is like an outreach clinic, because it’s not in a health centre. We’re working with the NGOs, we’re asking the public to come in and get tested, we’re providing door prizes and incentives,” said Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory’s chief public health officer.
“What we’re seeing is more and more cases presenting and we need to look at innovative ways to quickly test, treat and get contacts around the case — because that’s how we’re going to make an impact on syphilis transmission.”
Chelsea Thacker is the executive director of the Northern Mosaic Network, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Yellowknife. They think the clinic is a great idea.
“The numbers aren’t going down and there’s a very real concern that with the syphilis outbreak, that there is a direct link to HIV and AIDS cases rising,” Thacker said.
“So I think it’s important to be proactive, and to try to test as many people as possible.”
Kandola first declared a syphilis outbreak in 2019. Rates of infection before that had been “traditionally low” in the N.W.T., she said, but since 2019 the numbers have continued to rise.
In 2021, the N.W.T.’s syphilis rate was seven times higher than the national average, with 115 cases — most of them infectious. This year, the territory has already reached 184 total cases.
Kandola said initially, case numbers were higher among men but now more women are affected. Some regions are also more affected than others, she said, with higher case numbers in the Dehcho, Tłı̨chǫ, Fort Smith, Hay River and Yellowknife regions.
Communities in the Beaufort Delta and Sahtu regions have been less affected, but Kandola warns that syphilis is “one plane ride away from causing outbreaks in communities.”
In October, Kandola said there had been “at least nine” women who tested positive for syphilis in their pregnancy, and that babies have been born with congenital syphilis. So far this year, there have been three cases of congenital syphilis. Kandola calls that a “worrying reflection” of the state of the outbreak.
“It’s an indication that the syphilis has gone to the general population,” Kandola said.
A bacterial infection usually transmitted through sexual activity, syphilis is generally infectious for the first year that someone has it, before it tends to go dormant. It can cause serious health issues if left untreated — including blindness, brain damage and death.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says infectious syphilis rates have gone up substantially across the country over the past decade, and many outbreaks have been reported in the past five years.
According to Thacker, too many young people in the N.W.T. are ill-prepared to keep themselves safe while being sexually active.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” Thacker said.
“It seems like the sexual health education that we have is not cutting it because a lot of young people that I talk to aren’t even aware of how contagious STIs can be, the long term health effects, or even how curable they could be.”
‘A lot of misinformation out there’
Kandola says Thursday’s pop-up clinic is also meant to chip away at some of the stigma associated with testing for STIs. She compares it to the stigma once associated with COVID-19 testing, which went away as testing became more common and widespread. She hopes the same will happen with STI testing.
“Now everyone’s comfortable testing themselves [for COVID-19] or testing their kids or getting tested in public,” she said.
“If you’re at risk for an sexually transmitted infection such as syphilis, it’s really important that you feel comfortable getting tested.”
Renee Sanderson, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, also hopes the pop-up clinic removes some of the stigma while also making it easy for people to get tested.
“It’s on neutral ground. They’re not expected to go to the hospital, and then they have to wait. So everything’s done with the rapid testing pretty quickly, and there’s treatment that can be done right away,” Sanderson said.
“So it’s not like you go to one appointment, you get your test, and you have to go to the next one to get your results, and go the next one…. and so, I mean, this is definitely going to help with that.”
The clinic will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday at Yellowknife’s Centre Square Mall, lower level.