This particular strain of chlamydia is ready to hit the slopes and make some friends.
Growing up in Calgary, my friends and I would always joke about Banff being the STI capital of Canada, largely due to a serious disdain for the neon sleaze of snowboard culture. Recently, however, Alberta’s STI rates have actually been exceeding the national average and statistics are showing a province facing disproportionate sexual health problems. And trust me, there’s more to it than a few questionable Aussies with goggle tans.
An Alberta Health and Wellness STI action plan released in 2011 reported that chlamydia rates had increased by a staggering 207% from 1999 to 2009, with over 13,000 cases reported in 2009 alone. James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health also told me that judging by info as recent as 2011, Alberta’s rates for chlamydia, gonorrhea and infectious syphilis were still exceeding the national average. An outbreak of syphilis beginning around 2000 got so bad that over the decade there were 26 cases of babies born with congenital syphilis, several of which died while others will suffer severely debilitating long-term physical effects.
Surely as one of the only places in North America to fare reasonably well during the economic recession, it seems strange that Alberta would be afflicted by an STI that barely existed in the province 15 years ago. Why has Canada’s most prosperous province become so chronically plagued by STIs?
Well, rates of STIs—particularly chlamydia and gonorrhea—have shown to be highest among people aged 15 to 25; 72% of all reported cases of chlamydia in Alberta between 2004 and 2009 were in people younger than 25 years of age.
Dr. Talbot says Alberta’s thriving economy has brought an influx of people to work in the province, and that has provided Alberta with a comparatively young population. Fort McMurray has seen a large boost in its population due to work in the oil sands and has become what Talbot calls a “hotspot” for STIs. Talbot also cites tourist destinations like Banff and Jasper, which tend to gather transient young people from all over the world for skiing and snowboarding. Essentially there is a relatively high amount of single young people with money to burn all over Alberta—who fuck each other so rampantly that the burning of their money is a mere flickering ember compared to the burning of their infected genitals.
All this has also led to an increase in sex work within in the province: “In Fort Mac there are a lot of men and a lot of money, and that tends to attract people who want to serve that population,” says Talbot.
Two upstanding gentlemen who are probably more than capable of wearing protection.
Alberta Health documents also seem to suggest that an absence of fear that previous generations experienced regarding HIV/AIDS is prompting today’s youth to be more complacent about their sexual health. Still, you really have to wonder if it’s purely a lack of compulsion to give a shit that has resulted in an increase of over 200 percent in something like chlamydia. Pam Krause, executive director of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre doesn’t think so. She believes Alberta doesn’t have a comprehensive strategy of education to deal with sexual health across rural and urban areas. “We know that the prevention message isn’t reaching young people because the numbers continue to rise,” she says, stressing that education needs to move forward by helping to equip young people with the skills to not only put a condom on but to feel confident talking about sex, sexuality, and STIs with their partners.
Krause also believes that an inconsistent access to sexual health facilities across Alberta is contributing to the climb in STIs. Anonymity can be more difficult when trying to access sexual health resources in smaller communities, and that can be a detractor for many people. “I think the thing with Alberta in particular is that we are thought to be a more conservative province and so I think the same services have just not been available,” Krause says. “In Calgary we do comprehensive sex education and there’s tons of community agencies to help you, but then you step out into a rural community and there might be no services available and the doctor might be your uncle.”
While uncle doctors are certainly terrifying, the staggering rise in cases of syphilis also led to a controversial public awareness campaign across Alberta in 2011. “Plenty of Syph” featured a fake dating website with syphilis infected clients. Although that particular marketing tactic has been slammed by some critics as a stigmatization of people with STIs, Talbot believes it contributed to putting syphilis on the downward slope it is experiencing now. Although it still remains a serious issue within the province, this may indicate that public awareness campaigns can help. Talbot says Alberta Health has a new STI awareness campaign currently in the works.
Anyway you look at the numerous factors contributing to this issue, it’s clear that Albertans need to step up on safe sex and step down on the overall transmission of harmful STIs. “You have to have a plan (for contraception),” says Talbot. “It’s not like these things are going to magically appear when you need them, although if we could do that in public health it would certainly help.”
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