STI cases reach outbreak levels in Alberta

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Cases of sexually transmitted infections (STI), specifically gonorrhea and infectious syphilis, have reached “outbreak levels” in the province, according to Alberta Health Services (AHS).

Dr. Gerry Predy, AHS Senior Medical Officer of Health, said though numerous factors causing the outbreak had been identified, a significant number of recent STI cases involved the use of social media or websites to find casual and sometimes anonymous hookups.

“That’s part of what’s fuelling this outbreak,” he said. “The concern we have is that people are engaging in high-risk behaviour without adequate protection.”

With any case of gonorrhea or infectious syphilis, AHS tries to find the context of where the STI came from and where it could possibly spread, Predy said.

AHS uses a person’s sexual history to trace the STI, but he said problems arise with the anonymous nature of some of these sexual encounters that originated from an online source.

“When people don’t even know the person’s name, they’re pretty hard to track down,” Predy said.

According to AHS, cases of gonorrhea in 2015 went up 80 per cent from the previous year with 3,400 cases, while infectious syphilis doubled at 350 cases, surpassing the historic high set in 2009.

In the Calgary zone, which Airdrie falls under, cases of gonorrhea per 100,000 people aged 44 to 49 witnessed the highest increase, at 103.5 per cent at 23.5 cases. That was followed by 60 plus at 69 per cent at 5.5 cases and 50 to 54 year olds at 67.6 per cent at 17.6 cases.

People in their 20s still encompassed the highest gonorrhea rates in 2015, with 20 to 24 year olds at 138.8 cases per 100,000, a 36.6 per cent increase from 2014. Twenty-five to 29 year olds increased to 132.6, or 52.6 per cent.

Though infectious syphilis experienced lower cases than gonorrhea per 100,000 people across all age groups, the percentage increases were higher all around, according to AHS data.

“The increase has been pretty steep in the last couple of years,” Predy said.

The initial symptom of infectious syphilis is a painless sore in the genital area that may disappear after a couple of weeks, according to Predy.

This does not mean the person no longer has the STI, he added, and untreated infectious syphilis can be spread easily and cause very serious infections in phases over years.

Gonorrhea can be symptomless, Predy said, and for women can cause scarring of the fallopian tubes rendering them infertile down the road.

“There are lots of consequences to these diseases that go beyond just their immediate symptoms,” he said.

While treating these cases, Predy said AHS is identifying the online services most used by Albertans for “hooking up” and targeting educational advertising campaigns on those platforms to remind individuals to be safe and get tested.

Predy added AHS is trying to get the message of safe sexual practice and STI testing into post-secondary institutions and targeting demographic groups, like men having sex with men which has seen the highest infectious syphilis increases.

“We know just by putting ads in conventional media… that doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “We’re trying to reach the population at risk in every way that we can.”

For more information visit sexgerms.com, call 811 or contact the STI/HIV Information line at 1-800-772-2437.

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