STI outbreaks in Alberta not just due to dating apps, social media

[PHOTO: Quartz]

Swipe right for STIs? Not exactly. Sexual-health educators say that Alberta health officials aren’t telling the whole story in blaming the province’s outbreak of sexually transmitted infections on social media and dating apps.

“I really think a lot of this in Alberta goes back to being a very conservative province traditionally, and a real lack of focus on any kind of comprehensive community and education campaigns,” Pam Krause, president and CEO of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, which offers birth control, counselling and other health services, tells Yahoo Canada News.

Gonorrhea and syphilis have spiked to levels not seen in the province since the 1980s, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Karen Grimsrud said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Dr. Grimsrud put the blame for the increase on the use of social media and dating apps like Tinder and Grindr to find partners for casual sex.

“When people don’t know their sexual partner’s identity, that makes it difficult for public health to do the tracing for them and their contact, as far as setting up testing and treatment,” she said.

But in truth, the continuing increases in STIs in the province can’t be blamed on one factor alone, Krause says. And the province’s site — with language like “gaping junk wounds” referring to herpes — promotes stigma around STIs, which makes open communication even more difficult.

“A lot of these sites aren’t new,” Krause says of dating apps and websites blamed for the STI outbreaks. “It’s more about the lack of a prevention focus in the province of Alberta. I think it’s really about having a strategy about reaching the targeted populations, and having an integrated approach within the community.”

Cases of gonorrhea in Alberta increased by 80 per cent in 2015, compared to the year before, according to provincial health officials. And syphilis cases more than doubled over the same period of time.

The increases were most pronounced in Edmonton, Dr. Grimsrud said at the news conference, but were seen across the province.

While the 2015 numbers are higher than normal, STI rates in Alberta have been increasing overall since the late 1990s, Krause says, and therefore cannot be blamed entirely on newer factors like social media or dating apps.

“It remains kind of a mystery because the rates keep going up and up,” Krause says, of the reasons for the continued increases, not just in Alberta but in other parts of Canada as well. “Clearly the kind of efforts being made aren’t actually reaching the point of making a change.”

Further, Krause says, the reasons for STI increases vary from population to population, and from community to community even within one city, as illustrated by the particularly high rates in southwest Calgary and northeast Edmonton.

Teenagers are different than people in their 20s and 30s, for example, and some groups — like newcomers to Canada or men who have sex with men — have particular concerns. And while STI rates are highest in those aged 20 to 24, according to Alberta Health data, they increased for all age groups from 2010 to 2014.

As well, Krause says, though STI testing is free and anonymous in the province someone in rural Alberta has very different access to those services than a person in Calgary or Edmonton.

“You have to be innovative and nimble and meet the needs of the community in question,” Krause says.

This is where a focus on social media and dating apps can come in handy, she says. The Calgary Sexual Health Centre, for example, used the app Grindr to target men who have sex with men for messaging about STI testing and sexual health, and then offers testing clinics particularly for that population.

That approach and others like it go beyond simply telling people what STIs are or making condoms available, Krause says, to provide what people aren’t currently getting: a way to have conversations about sexual health with their partners, and access to preventative services.

“It has to be a way broader approach,” Krause says. “It has to be more comprehensive if we’re going to actually start seeing rates go down.”

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