Let’s not beat around the bush. Northwestern Ontario has some of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the province and, according to Dr. Annabella Zawada, the best advice in preventing STIs is to have knowledge about them.
Gone are the days when we refer to STIs as STDs – where the ‘D’ stood for disease. “The reality is that most STIs are easily detected and easily treatable. Most are simple infections. The new name is more accurate and hopefully has less stigma attached to it,” explained Dr. Zawada, who opened the Umbrella Clinic in Thunder Bay, to specialize in and advocate for sexual health.
The high rates of STIs in our region are a concern. “Currently, our region has extremely high rates of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea. We also have information about a recent HIV outbreak,” said Dr. Zawada. Chlamydia is caused by the Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria, and it is one of the most common STIs in the world. It can affect the cervix, urethra, and occasionally the rectum, eyes and throat. Gonorrhea is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae and is also, elusively, known as ‘the clap’. It can cause infections in the genitals, rectum and throat. Both of these STIs occur more commonly in younger men and women (15 to 24 years), are spread through unprotected sex, sexual contact, and neither show symptoms for weeks after infection. This means that infected individuals won’t know that they have an STI and they can unknowingly spread it.
In Northwestern Ontario, the rate of Chlamydia is highest among 20-24 year olds at 2282/100,000 (Ontario is 1637/100,000), and Gonorrhea is highest among 25-29 year olds at 461/100,000 (Ontario is 177/100,000). Our region also has the highest rates of Hepatitis B, and higher rates of syphilis and Hepatitis C.
When it comes to contracting an STI, Dr. Zawada mentioned that in her experience many people don’t think that they are ‘at risk’, but as she explains, there is always some sort of risk. “Having multiple sexual partners (regardless of your age) puts you at higher risk for contracting an STI. Other risk factors, such as injection drug use can increase your risk of blood born infections like Hepatitis C and HIV. Even if you are at low risk, it is recommended that you get screened intermittently for these infections. The sooner you know your status, the sooner you can start treatment and prevent future health problems related to untreated infections.”
Although talking about getting tested and getting tested can feel awkward or embarrassing, Dr. Zawada doesn’t want embarrassment to stop you from taking care of your health. “Knowledge is power. Many, many, many people have sex, and many people have been diagnosed with an STI. You are not alone. Although it can be scary to be told that you have an STI, treatment is often simple and easily available,” she said. “It is tough to have that conversation with a sexual partner about sexual history and STIs, but I find that honesty and respect are key. You could say something like, ‘I know this isn’t a sexy conversation to have, but I want to be honest with you and tell you that I get tested for STIs regularly. When was the last time you were tested?’. I also advise using barrier protection methods like condoms. Studies have shown that people often use barrier methods to prevent pregnancy, rather than to prevent STIs, however, this leads to the unfortunate habit of not using barrier methods and increasing the transmission of STIs.”
Services at the Umbrella Clinic are available to anybody from the public. They are focused on sexual health because they understand that this may be a difficult topic to discuss and sometimes it is easier to talk to someone other than your primary care provider. Unlike other walk-in clinics, the Umbrella Clinic has a special-focused practice designation with the Ministry of Health so your primary care provider will not be penalized for you attending the clinic. You can find out more about the Umbrella Clinic, its mission, values and services by visiting: www.umbrellaclinic.com. For more information about STIs, visit: www.sexandu.ca.