Gonorrhea and syphilis rates dramatically spiked across Alberta last year mostly due to the use of social media, according to health officials.
Gonorrhea cases were up 80 per cent in 2015 from 2014, and infectious syphilis doubled. Both have reached outbreak levels.
“We believe one of the key drivers in this particular spike in STIs (sexually transmitted infections) is due to the use of social media to set up sexual encounters. In terms of transmission of STIs, new social media tools enable people to communicate quickly and anonymously,” said Dr. Karen Grimsrud, chief medical officer of health, at a press conference in Edmonton on Tuesday.
She said when people don’t know their sexual partners it is also more difficult to track STIs and contact partners for testing and treatment.
Rates for gonorrhea and syphilis were highest in the Edmonton area. But the rest of the province, including Central Alberta, also saw increases.
Grimsrud said gonorrhea and syphilis cases have increased gradually since 2010.
Alberta had over 3,400 gonorrhea cases in 2015 and 1,100 already in 2016.
“The preliminary rate of gonorrhea in 2015 in the province was 82 cases per 100,000 population. That hasn’t been reported at that level since the late 1980s.”
The female rate of infection for gonorrhea jumped 93 per cent from 2014. The rate has increased for young aboriginal women in particular.
The overall gonorrhea rate for men increased 66 per cent. The estimated rate among men who have sex with men is 11 times higher than the provincial rate for all men.
She said more than 350 cases of syphilis were reported in 2015 to surpass historic levels last seen in 2009. So far in 2016 there have been 123 cases.
“The majority of cases have been seen in men who have sex with men, that’s about 86 per cent. And a quarter of all cases are infected with HIV,” Grimsrud said.
Dr. Gerry Predy, medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services, said the rate of STI infection show no sign of levelling off. AHS is partnering with Alberta Health to increase awareness efforts so the public and at-risk groups know how to protect themselves and where to get treatment.
AHS has expanded STI clinic hours in Edmonton and Calgary, increased outreach testing in Edmonton in collaboration with agencies serving aboriginal and the men who have sex with men populations. AHS has reached out to physicians to increase STI testing for sexually active clients.
AHS will continue to promote www.sexgerms.com and its social media campaign to raise awareness and encourage STI testing.
Testing in Alberta is free and anonymous.
“The good news is most STIs can be treated and cured, but only if you know you have them. Left untreated, many STIs can cause long term health issues. For example, chlamydia infections can result in infertility. Left untreated, syphilis can result in involvement of the central nervous system. And while HIV and AIDS treatment have made great advances in managing the disease, there is no cure for HIV or AIDS at this time,” Predy said.
Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, Turning Point executive director, started hearing about an increase in gonorrhea and syphilis cases in February.
She was cautious about whether AHS would be the best group to reach people through social media.
“Sometimes the larger organizations have political problems putting out information that will catch people’s eyes,” Vanderschaeghe said.
She said nimble non-profits can respond fast.
Turning Point has a part-time employee focused on the men who have sex with men community.
“A lot of his work is online on some of the websites and apps that people use to hook up so certainly we continue to have conversations about safer sex, but also STI testing.”
She said tests can be ordered locally at doctors’ offices, the Sexual Health Clinic and the Street Clinic.