Catchy campaigns to catch STDs
Two women tackling issues of sexually transmitted diseases and sexual behaviour in Whistler
By Claire Piech Pique News Magazine (link to original article)
When it comes to STD testing, fun is probably not the first word that comes to mind.
Actually the words dreadful, nerve-racking, or uncomfortable are perhaps more appropriate.
But local doctor Marisa Collins hopes to change that with a new program she will launch next year. The program, which has yet to be given a name, will bundle free Chlamydia testing with a catchy education campaign targeting those aged 20 to 29.
“The logic behind this pilot program is that Chlamydia is the most common, treatable STI (sexually transmitted infection) in Canada — but most people with it don’t know they have it. So the question becomes ‘How do you find it in order to diagnose and treat it?’” said Collins.
“If people don’t have symptoms or aren’t already seeking regular testing, how do we reach them? Well, if they won’t come to us, we’ll go to them,” she said.
Collins is one of two scientists who have recently launched studies in Whistler that look into sexual behaviour and STIs.
The other is Jennifer Matthews from the University of Alberta, who is investigating how drugs and alcohol affect the behaviour of young men in Whistler.
“I am interested in hearing from guys about their opinions and thoughts on sex and substance use,” said Matthews.
“Most sexual health education does not address sex under the influence, and neither does most drug education. I am hoping to fine more effective ways of educating around both of these issues,” she said.
Both women chose Whistler for their studies based on the resort town’s unusual demographic: a large number of young people.
“Whistler has a proportionally large population of transient, at-risk, young adults, who may not be accessing sexual health services effectively,” said Collins.
“Based on census data, 6.2 per cent of the population in the province is 20–29. In Whistler, it is 16 per cent of the population. And that is just the census. That does not even include all seasonal workers and non-Canadians,” said Collins.
She added that the town’s apparent high numbers of STIs, including Chlamydia, are not necessarily indicative of skyrocketing rates. They may simple be a reality of having lots of young people around.
Collins hopes the program will help diagnose cases of Chlamydia that would otherwise go untreated. This could help reduce the “pool of infection”, or the number of people who do not know they have Chlamydia and may infect others.
“Right now we are still in the developmental stages. But the plan is to create a festive and appealing hook that informs young adults that regular sexual health testing is easy to do. As well, we’ll be offering Chlamydia screening tests via urine,” said Collins.
Collins plans to provide the Chlamydia urine tests at various events around Whistler by setting up a booth near the bathrooms. Volunteers will then go into the crowd and let people know that they can get a free, confidential test if they want. A range of educational materials will also be available.
Those who test positive on their urine tests will be contacted, offered treatment and advice on anonymous help contacting past sexual partners who might also be infected.
Participants will also be asked if they would like to complete a confidential survey.
“One issue we want to look at is where are the infections coming from and going to. We plan to ask questions such as where were you two months ago? Where will you be two months from now?” said Collins.
After her three-year program is up, it will be evaluated to see if it should be expanded into an ongoing community program.
“It is important to educate people about safer sexual practices, but also to help them get tested on a regular basis if they are at risk — and for more than just Chlamydia,” said Collins, adding that cases of HIV were found in women in Whistler this year.
Matthews’s study, on the other hand, will look at reducing STI infections and HIV rates from the other end of the spectrum: the social behaviour that leads to men making unhealthy sexual choices.
“In terms of addressing the spread of disease, it is important to understand the social part of what spreads the disease instead of just promoting condoms or ‘this virus does this’,” said Matthews.
Her work will look into how to encourage young people to make choices for themselves and develop healthy sexuality from a personal perspective.
Matthews will be conducting brief online surveys of men aged 19 to 25 at www.whistlerguysstudy.com. Then, based on the survey results, she will pick 16 eligible gentlemen to participate in a one-on-one, hour-long interview. Those interviewed will be given $20 as an honorarium.
“My hope is to hear from young men themselves about what is important to them rather than relying on stereotypes about guys,” she said.
Matthews has already begun recruiting volunteers for her study through poster advertisements and word-of-mouth.
“So far, the Whistler community has been incredibly helpful and supportive of my study, and I’ve really appreciated getting to know a bit more about the ‘real’ Whistler people live in versus the one people visit,” said Matthews.