Last week, public health officials in Nova Scotia declared a syphilis outbreak after seeing a 60 per cent increase in cases from 2018 to 2019. Rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea across Canada have spiked – particularly in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
As a country, we don’t know why STIs are on the rise. We can make educated guesses, but we don’t have the data necessary to pin it to a specific cause. It is because people are getting tested more often — or less often? Or due to a reduction in condom usage or poor sex education? Without accurate sexual health information tracked at the national level, it’s difficult to tell.
What we do know, though, is that the social stigma surrounding STIs — having them, getting tested for them, and even talking about them — persists. Young people have the highest reported STI rates in Canada, and yet, the sex ed they receive in school fails them by leaving out the information they need to live safe, healthy, and happy lives.
Most young people are still taught to feel embarrassed or ashamed about STIs in school — despite how common they are. The reality is that many people in Canada will have an STI in their lifetime. Framing our teaching about STIs in a way that makes it sound like they only happen to those who are irresponsible or “dirty” means that people — especially young people — avoid getting tested and shy away from talking to their partners about it.
In the face of rising STI rates, we need to change how we talk about sexual health.