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Canada’s STI rates rising but survey suggests students are unaware of risk

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Statistics show that Canadians aged 18 to 24 are at the greatest risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections and that rates of reported cases have been steadily increasing. Despite this increase, the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada survey of 13 universities reported that students’ concern about STIs has dropped.

Alex McKay, executive director of SIECCAN, says that even though this demographic might be more “savvy” around sexuality than previous generations, this study shows a need for more comprehensive sexual health education in post-secondary institutions.

“Not only do university students not have a general awareness of how common STIs are in their age group, but they also tend not to be aware that most cases of STIs involve asymptomatic transmission,” McKay said.

Even if an individual is a carrier of an infection, they might not experience symptoms. But even these kinds of STIs can still “seriously damage your health,” according to McKay.

“I think a lot of young adults in Canada are unaware that they can acquire these infections asymptomatically and just because you or your partner have no symptoms of an STI doesn’t mean that you aren’t already carrying one,” McKay said.

This research was part of a series of comprehensive surveys done by SIECCAN in partnership with Trojan Condoms. The condom brand funded the research through grants, and SIECCAN independently developed the research questionnaire that recreated a 2013 survey conducted by the two organizations.

McKay says comparing the new data with the 2013 survey has been extremely useful for determining how sexual health practices might be changing. 

The survey revealed that a high percentage of students are not concerned about STIs, particularly female students. 

Since 2013, the amount of women who reported they were not concerned about getting an STI rose from 59 to 65 per cent. Comparatively, men’s answers to the same question dropped from 57 to 50 per cent.

McKay says this finding was concerning because the medical implications of contracting an asymptomatic STI, such as chlamydia, can disproportionately affect women. But he also believes this can be partly explained by understanding sexual health behaviours.

“University students are primarily motivated to prevent pregnancies and our studies indicate that they are less motivated or concerned with STIs,” McKay said.

“So it makes sense that women concerned about unintended pregnancy have a choice of birth control methods they can use, whereas if a male wants to make sure his partner doesn’t become pregnant, he could only do that by using a condom.”

McKay says that more should be done to raise awareness of the need for young adults to protect themselves and that condoms are a great form of birth control because they also protect from STI transmission.

Another sexual health trend that McKay sees as being problematic is the assumption that being in an exclusive monogamous relationship protects students from acquiring STIs.

“It’s very common to see university students become involved in a relationship, decide they are committed and discontinue condom use because they think there is little to no risk of STIs,” McKay said.

Even if relationships start with condom use, this is often discontinued in favour of other forms of birth control. And over the course of a university degree, an individual might go through a series of similar monogamous relationships.

“Then really at the end of the day, what you’ve done is had unprotected sex with multiple partners and that is the recipe for high rates of STI infections,” McKay said.

Although McKay believes there is an assumption that condoms might reduce physical pleasure, he says the survey’s results argue against this. 

SIECCAN’s questionnaire asked people to rate how pleasurable their last sexual experience was, then separately asked whether they used a condom.

“It was pretty remarkable,” McKay said. “We found that people who did use a condom are not less likely to say that the sexual experience was ‘very pleasurable.’”

McKay thinks a possible reason why those people’s perceived pleasure was not interfered by condom use came from the peace of mind knowing that they were protecting themselves from STIs.

He believes that because of the rising statistics around STIs in Canada, raising public awareness needs to be a public health priority.

“STIs can have long lasting and damaging effects on people’s health,” McKay said. “So these are medical and public health issues that can extend for a long period of time in terms of how they affect people’s lives.”

Noah Callaghan/ Staff Writer

Graphic: Shawna Langer/ Graphics Editor

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