Province makes gains in preventing new cases of STDs

The rate of new sexually-transmitted infection cases in Alberta dropped in 2010 for the first time since 2004.

The rate of new sexually-transmitted infection cases in Alberta dropped in 2010 for the first time since 2004.

According to a provincial report released on Monday, notifiable sexually transmitted infections dipped 5.3 per cent to 16,298 new cases in 2010, down from 17,217 in 2009.

Alberta’s rates for chlamydia, gonorrhea and infectious syphilis all declined.

Diagnosed HIV cases fell 12.3 per cent to 192 in 2010 from 219 in 2009.

Last spring, the province announced a five-year strategy and action plan to address rising provincial rates of infections for both sexually transmitted infections and blood-borne pathogens, such as HIV and hepatitis B.

The strategy includes education, awareness, testing and hiring more clinical and outreach staff.

“Over the past few years, this province has faced a lot of criticism about having some of the highest STI and HIV rates in Canada,” said Health Minister Fred Horne on Monday at a press conference in Edmonton.

“The 2010 rates show this work has started to make a huge difference and we’re not letting up,” Horne said.

STIs are generally higher among 15-to-24-year-olds, men who have sex with men and aboriginals.

Horne said the province has designed social media campaigns — like the Plenty of Syp syphilis-awareness campaign that parodies online dating websites — that grab people.

“It’s got to be edgy enough that it gets people’s attention, it shakes them up a bit,” Horne said.

“Government can’t be afraid of this. It can’t shy away from it. It’s got to be the right message directed at the right group, delivered in the format that it actually reaches the people intended.”

Dr. Andre Corriveau, Alberta’s chief medical officer, said the strategy is working and led to a sustained 17 per cent increase in the number of people visiting STI clinics last summer and into the fall.

“The report says we have made significant progress in syphilis. We were the province that had the highest rate of syphilis for about five years in a row. In 2010, our rates went back down to the national average.”

He said infants born with syphilis continue to be a concern, with two more cases reported in 2010.

Gonorrhea fell below the national average, but there were still twice as many cases in 2010 as in 2000.

Alberta had 1,188 new cases of gonorrhea in 2010.

Corriveau said an emerging strain of drug-resistant gonorrhea is making its way around the world.

“What we’re starting to see is a creep in terms of the level of antibiotics required to treat the infection. We need to monitor. We had a couple of imported cases and we have to make sure it doesn’t spread within the province.”

Chlamydia rates in Alberta are still well above the national average with nearly 13,000 cases in 2010. Rates have more than doubled since 2000.

Over the next year, the strategy will focus on hard-to-reach populations, improving access to rapid testing, increasing harm-reduction efforts, and a new public awareness campaign is being planned.

Corriveau said government must find ways to refresh its messages.

“That was one of the messages learned from the 1990s. We failed to refresh our messages collectively across the board in Canada and we weren’t necessarily engaged in new social media that we could have been. We’ve learned our lesson.”

Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, executive director of Central Alberta AIDS Network Society, said it’s important to do targeted programming to all at-risk populations.

“There’s a lot of work to be done. Campaigns that hit the general public, like Plenty of Syp did, aren’t necessarily going to work in different populations. They may have a different literacy level or different access to social media or may not trust the government,” Vanderschaeghe said.

“The scatter method is what works the best where lots of agencies are doing their piece in a larger co-ordinated role.”

CAANS and its partner agencies in Alberta submitted a program pitch under the strategy last fall and are waiting to hear back from the province, she said.

In 2010, Central Alberta had 12 newly diagnosed cases of HIV, Calgary and Edmonton each had 78, the north had 17 and the south had six.

In 2009, Central Alberta had 16 newly diagnosed cases, and five in 2008.

“In Canada, 27 per cent of all people living with HIV don’t know they have HIV so testing is a huge issue.”

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com

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