Young people ill-informed about sexual health: officials

Danette Dooley
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Phase 2 of Take Care Down There campaign launched

Armed with the knowledge that some sexually transmitted infections are on the rise in this province, health promotion consultants say young people need to pay more attention to their sexual health and well-being in addition to taking care of their physical, mental and nutritional health.

Anita Forward and Donna Dawe are health promotion consultants with Eastern Health.

It’s well documented, they say, that condom use is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and prevent pregnancy.

With that in mind, Eastern Health launched the first phase of its “Take Care Down There” campaign, which ran from February to August 2011.

The campaign, which targeted people aged 18-30, aimed to raise awareness about practising safer sex, including the importance of using a condom.

Focus groups were held in Bay Roberts, Carbonear, Clarenville, Marystown, Burin, Grand Bank, Fortune, Catalina, Bonavista, Placentia, Harbour Grace, Seal Cove, Whitbourne and Mount Pearl.

Free condoms

“We know young adults are making really important decisions around their sexual health. They are prone to risk-taking so that’s why we

targeted them. We met with them and asked them questions,” Dawe said.

During the first phase of the campaign, Eastern Health partnered with taxis in the downtown St. John’s areas as well as in the rural areas of the province where the focus groups took place.

“We had 40 denim bags out during those six months.

“The bags were put over the back seats of the taxis and they were filled with condoms for customers to take free of charge,” Dawe explained.

During followup discussions with focus group participants, Forward and Dawe learned that there are many areas of sexual health where young people are either misinformed or not informed at all.

There was a “huge lack of awareness” around what their sexual risk-taking behaviours were, Forward noted.

People are having sex at a much younger age, she said, often around 15 or 16. In addition, she said, they are not starting a committed long-term relationship until they are in their 30s.

That leaves a 10-20-year period, she said, where they are sexually active. Often, she said, there’s a false sense of security that they were participating in monogamous relationships and feel safe enough to not worry about using a condom. Their only concern, Forward said, was about an unplanned pregnancy.

In those cases, she said, women who on a birth control pill thought they were taking all the precautions they needed to take.

These individuals are being exposed and re-exposed to STIs, she said.

“Many of the females in the focus groups thought they were being tested for STIs because they were having regular Pap testing done, but that’s not always the case,” Forward said.

Many of the focus group participants didn’t realize how important it is to talk to their partner about their sexual history, she said.

“This is a generation that’s communicating via text and social media. … We’re encouraging people to talk about their sexual history with their partner before

they become sexually active with them.”

Know the risks

Eastern Health recently launched the second phase of the Take Care Down There campaign, which focuses on four key messages: use a condom, talk to your partner, get tested, know your risks.

As part of the campaign, the health authority has also set up a sexual health website which can be found by visiting www.easternhealth.ca.

“By improving the health of this age group, we’ll be improving the health of the entire population,” Dawe said.

Dawe and Forward have been visiting post-secondary institutions in the region to get their message out. Posters are up in these institutions, Forward said, and condom compacts are available free of- harge.

The compact has a code that, when scanned on an iPhone, takes people directly to the sexual health website.

An increase in gonorrhea

Meanwhile, the medical officer of health for eastern Newfoundland has been in the news lately, answering questions about the recent rise in gonorrhea cases.

Dr. David Allison said at least 20 cases of gonorrhea have been reported so far this year in the eastern area of the province.

That’s compared to four or five cases in 2011 and 2012, he said.

However, Allison said gonorrhea is only a small reflection of the total picture in terms of sexually transmitted infections.

“There are much greater numbers around chlamydia. We are already up into the 600s in terms of the number of cases in this region.”

According to Allison, that number isn’t particularly unusual as chlamydia is the most commonly reported sexually transmitted infection.

Allison said sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea are easily treated with antibiotics. However, he said if left untreated they can lead to more serious infections, infertility and chronic pain.

In the case of HIV/AIDS, he said, it can be fatal.

Allison said it’s not just enough to suggest to physicians how to treat people with STIs.

“We need to find ways to communicate with the people who are at greatest risk of infection and encourage them to take measures to protect themselves.”

That’s where the Take Care Down There campaign comes in, he said.

“It’s really an effort to remind people about the risks of sexually transmitted infection. And we can test for both gonorrhea and chlamydia with a simple urine

test.”

danette@nl.rogers.com

Organizations: STI, Grand Bank

Geographic location: Bay Roberts, Carbonear, Marystown Seal Cove Eastern Newfoundland

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