Province to spend $14 million combating sex diseases

Alberta has highest STI rates within Canada

Alberta once boasted it had the “advantage.” Then it had the “Freedom to Create. Spirit to Achieve.” Now it can officially add “The Highest Rate of Sexually Transmitted Infections in Canada.”

Alarming rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) and several years of lobbying by frontline health care workers and doctors prompted the province to release a five-year multimillion-dollar strategy and action plan.

“We have a very serious public-health issue in Alberta and we must respond swiftly and aggressively” Alberta Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky told reporters shortly after releasing the strategy. The Alberta Sexually Transmitted Infections and Blood Borne Pathogens Strategy and Action Plan includes a $2-million “Don’t’ You Get It” ad campaign aimed at 15- to 24-year-olds.

The province will spend $14 million over the next three years boosting education and awareness programs enhancing testing and hiring more staff. Funding for the final two years will be announced at a later date.

The new strategy arrives five months after the province quietly released an alarming report which began with the line: “We have a problem” on December 23 2010 (note: two days before Christmas) detailing the sharp rise of syphilis within Albertans.

According to government figures between 1999 and 2009:

• Chlamydia rates increased 207 per cent;

• Gonorrhea rates are now 250 per cent higher;

• In 2009 279 cases of syphilis were reported up from two cases in 1999;

• Rates for those three diseases far exceed national rates.

The health minister says the alarming numbers signal a need for “much more aggressive” public education about STIs — especially in schools. “Obviously the education system has a huge role to play as well” Zwozdesky says. “Whatever we have been doing requires serious ramping up.”

“All of this is preventable” he adds. “People aren’t taking precautions to prevent the spread of the disease because there is a lot of education that needs to occur because a lot of people seem ignorant about the causes and effects of it.”

However the government seems to be sending an inconsistent message about sex education says the executive director of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre.

“In Alberta sex ed is required to be taught but it’s not required to be taught by any particular person — the way it’s taught who teaches it is completely different across the province so we don’t have a consistent message” says Pam Krause.

Adding to that inconsistency is Bill 44 provincial legislation allowing parents to pull their kids out of sex education classes lest the kids learn about the birds the bees and the festering sores on their genitals.

“With Bill 44 we’re actually saying people really shouldn’t be addressing these issues at all and you can get in big trouble with the Human Rights Commission if you do” says Krause. “But at the same time we have a big problem and we need to address it on the prevention side.”

Krause who has seen the new provincial TV ads says the so-called “edgier” tone seems to sensationalize sex when in fact it should normalize sex.

“We can’t go from not being able to talk about anything in a school to having young women dressed provocatively and having a big ad campaign in three weeks” she says. “You can use sexy sensational stuff but it’s not going to make somebody more comfortable talking to the school nurse.”