News / Edmonton

'There is no single, simple reason': Province expanding STI testing in face of outbreak levels

The province announced $400,000 for Boyle Street's STI Harm Reduction outreach team

Laura Keegan, Director of Public Engagement with HIV Edmonton

Kevin Tuong / For Metro

Laura Keegan, Director of Public Engagement with HIV Edmonton

Online hookup sites and anonymous sexual partners are contributing to continued outbreak levels of sexually transmitted infections in Alberta, health officials say.

As a result of continued high levels of infectious syphilis and gonorrhea first reported in April 2016, Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services are trying to raise awareness about the importance of safe sex and regular testing through their website

The province is expanding the types of STI testing available through its Test & Treat program and is also recommending further testing for pregnant women.

That includes continued universal syphilis screening for all pregnant women and increasing tests available to pregnant women.

"We are updating our provincial prenatal screening guidelines so that all pregnant women are tested in their first trimester for chlamydia and gonorrhea as they already are for syphilis," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, deputy child medical health officer.

"We are recommending doctors also do repeat tests in the third trimester for women who are at high risks of contracting STIs."

Furthermore, the Test & Treat program is expanding to include testing of the throat and rectum, which may require different treatments compared to infections in other parts of the body.

Alberta Health is providing $400,000 to Edmontons’s Boyle Street Community Services to support an STI Harm Reduction outreach team to raise STI awareness, reduce stigma and facilitate further testing and treatment. The program will have a particular focus on Indigenous women.

That’s good news to Laura Keegan, director of public engagement at HIV Edmonton.

“An increase in sexual health testing especially is incredibly valuable for us because there’s a big gap when we talk about people knowing their status with HIV,” Keegan said. “There’s so few sites and such long wait times at the STI clinic. So any time we add services that allow sexual health information to be more accessible … I think is a great thing.

“Any time there’s an increased dialogue around sexual health in a positive way, that’s going to be beneficial for everybody,” she added.

According to Alberta's senior medical health officer, Dr. Gerry Predy, online sites such as Tinder, Pure and Grindr are have added to the problem, as well as people failing to practise safe sex.

"It's easier for people to hook up with each other. We know a lot of the sex is anonymous. When we go to ask people who their contact was, quite often they can't tell us," Dr. Gerry Predy said Tuesday.

"That makes it more difficult to follow up. There's a lot of underlying social changes that have led to this."

Six cases of congenital syphilis, meaning the infection has been passed to newborns, have been reported in the province so far this year.

Alberta Health says that as of Oct. 31, there had been 3,869 cases of gonorrhea, compared with just over 3,700 in all of 2016.

Hinshaw said the highest rate of sexual infections is in 15- to 26-year-olds, but no group is immune if sexually active and not using protection.

"There is no single, simple reason for rising infection rates and no single, simple solution," she said.

"We need to underscore the broad message for all Albertans, which is: STIs are a risk to anyone who is sexually active, particularly those who have new partners and are not using protection."

With files from the CANADIAN PRESS

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