Sexually transmitted infections continue to rise in Alberta

Sexually transmitted infections continue to rise in Alberta
  1. Sexually transmitted infections continue to rise in Alberta
    The number of Albertans afflicted with infectious syphilis and gonorrhea has risen again, a year after the provincial government warned of "outbreak levels" for the sexually transmitted infections in the…

The number of Albertans afflicted with infectious syphilis and gonorrhea has risen again, a year after the provincial government warned of "outbreak levels" for the sexually transmitted infections in the province.

New data from 2016 also point to an increase in HIV rates, while the number of chlamydia cases declined.

Provincial statistics for last year show the number of gonorrhea cases increased from 3,388 in 2015 to 3,723, for a rate of 87.54 per 100,000 population, up from 81.06 in 2015. Infectious syphilis cases rose from 363 to 405 in 2016, a rate of 9.52 per 100,000 population compared to 8.68 a year earlier.

A sharp increase that saw infectious syphilis rates more than double and gonorrhea rise by 80% between 2014 and 2015 prompted the government to sound the alarm over the situation just over a year ago.

Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said this week that while the rate of increase in STIs levelled off in 2016, the numbers show that "we're continuing to be in an outbreak."

"I was hopeful that we might see some decline in the number of cases . . . but, obviously, no we haven't," she said in an interview.

"Of course it is frustrating. So it leads us to look at different ideas of what we can do to take a more targeted approach."

The government said last year it believed the spike in STI rates stemmed in part from the prevalence of hook-up culture and the growing use of online social media to facilitate casual sex.

Related: Platt: Swipe right, swab often — Alberta's STI rates soar

The province responded to the 2015 increase by stepping up its awareness efforts, with Alberta Health Services launching a racy social media campaign last summer. It also expanded STI clinic hours and increased efforts to boost testing.

Grimsrud said that while the province focused on getting its message out to the broad public last year, it will now focus more on at-risk groups in its actions.

About 50% of the cases of gonorrhea are among indigenous women. More than three-quarters of the infectious syphilis incidents are among men having sex with men.

There is also significant overlap between cases of syphilis and HIV.

HIV rates per 100,000 population also increased from 5.5 in 2015 to 6.63 in 2016 as the number of cases rose to 282 last year.

Only chlamydia cases dropped in 2016, falling to 16,481 as the rate of infection decreased from 415.09 in 2015 to 387.53.

"There are certain groups that are more vulnerable than the others. Higher rates among those groups, so we have to do something different rather than general public awareness campaigns," said Grimsrud, who wants to see increased knowledge of the risks of STIs, greater testing and increased treatment.

Related: Alberta struggling to gain ground against sexually transmitted infections

Grimsrud said she is also questioning whether online hookups are having as big an impact on STI rates as once thought.

"Looking at our vulnerable populations, I'm not sure that that is what's necessarily going on," she said.

But Dr. Gerry Predy, Alberta Health Services' senior medical officer of health, said social media is a factor in the persistently high STI rates.

"It's pretty easy for people now to have sex with anonymous or almost anonymous partners, so I think that's one of the things that's really driving the outbreak," he said in an interview.

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