Plague or Panic?

By Cameron Axford

A controversial AIDS Healthcare Foundation billboard linking hook-up apps and sexual infection.

Recent headlines like “hook-up apps blamed for rise in STIs” may have you worried that the coffee date you planned for this afternoon could lead to a nasty case of herpes. But don’t cancel your Netflix and chill session quite yet. According to experts, these alarmist claims are just that –alarmist.

Alex McKay, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, a non-profit that promotes sexual health, says rates of sexual infection are not on the rise, despite what many media outlets have been claiming.
“What you’re looking at are called ‘reported rates,’” said McKay. “They are not indicators of prevalence. That’s a very common misconception when looking at STI data. A reported rate is simply the number of reports of positive tests for different STIs.”
McKay says there are many variables when looking for STI rates in a community and because reported rates are measured per 100,000 in a population, more tests mean a higher result.
“If you only test 100 people and 10 of them test positive, then your reported rate is 10 per 100,000,” McKay said. “But if you test 200 people and 20 of them, the same percentage, test positive, then your reported rate is 20 per 100,000. By testing twice the number of people, you’re going to get a reported rate that’s double the number.”
Medical technology also plays a role in the reported STI rate. The current test for diseases like gonorrhea and chlamydia are 50 per cent more sensitive than the test we had 25 years ago, McKay says. He explains that this is why rates of these diseases are up over 100 per cent in Canada and around the world, rather than the impending venereal apocalypse.
Without solid sex education, people never learn what they need to protect themselves from – or how to do it. McKay says societies that don’t talk about sex have the worst health. McKay thinks we do an okay job in Canada, but could do much better. One thing that frustrates him most is the lack of general education people have about STIs.
“As with most sexual infections, most people with genital herpes often don’t know they have it. However they are capable of transmitting the infection to others.”
Isabel Carlin, the PR official from the U of T Sexual Education Centre, is horrified by how little knowledge some people have about sex.
“I’ve seen people who are pregnant who know nothing about what to expect after child birth because that’s never talked about, even in prenatal classes,” Carlin says. “I used to volunteer at Planned Parenthood and got asked a lot of questions; people didn’t know how pregnancy happened. That was eye-opening to how much sexual education has failed.”
Jim*, an office worker from Toronto in his early 20s, got herpes from a sexual partner who didn’t know she was infected. Jim says that the worst physical thing that has happened to him was red, slightly itchy bumps that appeared on his pubic mound for a few days and never returned. But knowing he carries the HSV virus makes him feel like an outcast.
“When I got it, a part of me thought this really isn’t that bad,” Jim said. “But when I thought about how it would affect my future sexual partners I got scared because I realized that they would be afraid to have sex with me.”
Jim says that better sexual education could have helped him. He says it could also make people realize that he is not as dangerous as people think.
“People in my position wouldn’t feel so singled out. If you pursue casual sex, contraception of all sorts shouldn’t even be a second thought. That’s what I’ve learned from this. When you go travelling, you get vaccines because you just don’t know what could happen. In the same vein, use protection, not because of the dreaded H-word, but because you don’t have prior knowledge of the consequences it could have.”

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