As Alberta faces rising rates of sexually transmitted infections, several Calgary organizations are working to increase HIV and STI testing — outside of the medical system — for groups that can be higher risk.
With the help of nurses from Alberta Health Services' Safeworks program, several groups hold community-based testing clinics for gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.
Every Thursday night, the Calgary Sexual Health Centre hosts an STI testing clinic that includes a rapid HIV test.
"The existing STI testing services in Calgary ... they had long wait-times and those were becoming a barrier for particularly this population, which is often seen to be at higher risk for HIV and other STIs," said Nolan Hill, gay men's health specialist at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre.
The goal is to reach men who might not otherwise get tested.
"If people aren't necessarily out, If people aren't necessarily comfortable discussing their sexuality with the medical system, for them to go into a location like the Sheldon Chumir [Centre], that is very medical, it can be uncomfortable."
Testing is free and can be done anonymously either by appointment or on a walk-in basis. According to Hill, the most common diagnoses made at the clinic are chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.
"We are hearing that people are happy to get tested. And I think knowing that the people who are here are knowledgeable and are going to give them information that is accurate, I think is a huge bonus for them," said Hill.
Sexual health education information — designed specifically for men who have sex with men — is available at the testing clinic, and men are connected with supports when needed.
HIV Community Link started a similar program on Friday nights at Goliath's Bathhouse in 2007. This summer, the group added three special dance, barbecue and testing events at the gay bar, Twisted Element.
"We're certainly seeing an uptake of testing. And that's our hope is that we're creating greater access to testing and reducing stigma that goes along with being tested," said Dominique Denis-Lalonde, team lead of prevention and education at HIV Community Link.
Support, education on safer sex practices and counselling are also provided at these clinics, in addition to supplies such as condoms.
"By creating opportunities where they can be comfortable to come forward, talk about risk factors, access supplies and access testing in a safe environment, we know that will support their health in the long run," said Denis-Lalonde.
According to Alberta Health Services, 528 tests have been completed at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre and HIV Community Link testing clinics since January 2016.
"For HIV and for syphilis, men who have sex with men, gay men [are] over-represented in the numbers. So higher rates of transmission are occurring in a subset of that population, said Dr. David Strong, medical officer of health with AHS, which has partnered with both groups.
Strong says the growing rates of STIs, particularly gonorrhea and syphilis, are concerning.
"Clearly what we're doing now, we're not having the impact we need to. We need to do a bit more," said Strong.
"We need to be trying to get people understanding the need to be tested and then going to where they are and making it as easy as possible for them to get tested."
Both organizations are hoping to expand their community-based testing programs.
HIV Community Link is working to set up clinics for Calgary's African, Caribbean and black communities, which have also been identified as higher risk.
And the Calgary Sexual Health Centre is working to lengthen the hours of its current clinic or add an additional evening to its schedule.
"That people are getting tested is probably the most important thing to drive home. That's the only way to know that someone has an STI. A lot of STIs don't have symptoms or won't show symptoms in a lot of people," said Hill.