Your Health

Let's talk about sex(ually transmitted infections)

Condoms in a pant pocket.
Photo of Pierre Plourde DR. PIERRE PLOURDE
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, January 6, 2017

People don’t talk a lot about sexually transmitted infections. In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet the vast majority of Manitobans don’t talk about STIs at all.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

The spread of STIs represents a significant silent health issue in this province, one that appears to be getting worse instead of better, in all ages starting from 14 all the way to 60.

Consider these numbers: in the first 10 months of 2016, there were 9,247 cases of sexually transmitted infections recorded in Manitoba, a provincial government report states. That’s by far the highest number of any category of reportable diseases and an increase of 1,863 for the same period in 2015.

One reason for this increase, I believe, is the stigma that surrounds STIs. Simply put, people would rather not talk about them the way they might discuss any other health issue.

As a medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, I also believe if we are going to get a handle on the rising tide of STIs, we are going to have to talk about them a lot more. With that in mind, I have pulled together a few facts and figures with a view to raising awareness about STIs and the steps we can take to stop their spread.

How many kinds of STIs are there? There are six main STIs, although there can be variations of the main ones. They are: gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, herpes viruses, HIV and Human papillomavirus (HPV). These infections can cause a range of illnesses. For example, gonorrhea and chlamydia can lead to genital discharges, while syphilis and herpes viruses are the most common causes for genital sores (ulcers). HPV can cause genital warts and cancers.

Gonorrhea and chlamydia are by far the most common STIs, and they also have the largest year-over-year increases. During the first 10 months of 2016, there were 1,800 reported cases of gonorrhea, up 921 from the same period in 2015, and 6,055 cases of chlamydia, a jump of about 613. But, it is important to note a provincial report indicates increases in all of the main STIs that are tracked by health authorities.

Are STIs always accompanied by symptoms? It is widely accepted people who have STIs such as chlamydia or gonorrhea will have certain symptoms, such as a discharge from the vagina or penis. But many people may be surprised to learn these STIs don’t always exhibit symptoms. In fact, in as many as 50 to 60 per cent of persons infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea may have no symptoms. That means the only way to know for sure if you are infected with one of a number of STIs is to get tested.

Can someone get an STI from a kiss? The conventional wisdom is STIs are only spread through sexual intercourse, but some STIs, such as syphilis, can be spread by mouth-to-mouth kissing. Syphilis is also on the increase in Winnipeg. In 2016, there were 130 cases of syphilis in Winnipeg, a slight increase from the previous year and a huge increase from 2014.

Is it easy to test for an STI? Yes. And many STIs can lead to serious health issues such as permanent scarring of reproductive organs in women and infertility, permanent brain damage, cancer and life-threatening infections in newborns.

It is imperative people get tested regularly, especially if they are sexually active. A urine sample can be used to test for gonorrhea and chlamydia, while a blood test is used to check for syphilis and HIV.

Once diagnosed, STIs are relatively easy to treat, usually with a single dose of antibiotics by mouth for gonorrhea and chlamydia, and a single dose of injectable antibiotic for syphilis. But it is important to get treatment as soon as possible, which underscores the importance of regular testing.

Can STIs be prevented? Yes. The best way to protect yourself is by using condoms if you choose to be sexually active. Choosing not to have sexual intercourse is 100 per cent protective. Having protected sexual intercourse using a condom is very close to 100 per cent protective. Having condomless sexual intercourse is zero per cent protective.

Why take a chance?

Dr. Pierre Plourde is a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. To learn more about STIs and the effects they can have on your health, visit getsomecondoms.com or wfp.to/gwx. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, January 6, 2017.

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