Could better sex ed solve Ontario’s rising gonorrhea rates?

WATCH ABOVE: Public Health Ontario reports a sudden spike in gonorrhea cases across the province. Sean Mallen reports

TORONTO – Yes, unprotected oral sex can give you gonorrhea. Yes, condoms protect against more than just unwanted pregnancies.

That should be a no-brainer. But for many Ontarians, especially young people, it isn’t, according to the health-care practitioners seeing more cases of gonorrhea every day.

“People are unaware of the risks. And sometimes they’re surprised when we say, ‘Are you using condoms?’ and they say, ‘Really? Is that the way you protect yourself?’” Lesley Rintche, manager of sexual health and harm reduction programs for Region of Waterloo Public Health, said in an interview.

The number of people diagnosed with gonorrhea in the province has risen dramatically since 2010, according to Public Health Ontario. There were 5,825 cases of gonorrhea reported in Ontario in 2014, up 28 per cent from the 4,542 found in 2013, up 42 per cent since the 4,097 reported in 2012.

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And young people aged 20-24 are more likely than any other age group to be diagnosed. Public Health Ontario reports the incidence of gonorrhea was highest between among males aged of 20-24 and 25-29 with 181.6 cases and 182.4 cases per 100,000 – significantly more than the provincial average of 43.

READ MORE: Toronto at centre of dramatic rise of gonorrhea in Ontario

Females aged 20- to 25-years-old had a rate of 143.9 cases per 100,000.

Public Health Ontario reported 74.4 per cent of females and 74 per cent of males diagnosed with gonorrhea admitted to not using a condom.

Interactive: Explore Ontario gonorrhea rates from 2000 through 2014. Use the drop-down menu in the upper-left corner to switch between years. Enter your address in the search box or double-click to zoom, click and drag to move around.

Ontario gonorrhea rate, 2014 »

Ontario gonorrhea rate, 2014

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So why aren’t people using condoms? People working in healthcare say many of the young people they encounter simply don’t know how sexually transmitted infections are transmitted or how to protect themselves.

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“I see a fair number of people coming in who, you know, swear up and down that their only possible exposure was oral sex and I think a lot of people don’t realize that things like Chlamydia and gonorrhea can be contracted orally,” Natalie Fawcett, a nurse practitioner at Toronto Public Health said in an interview.

Gonorrhea – like all sexually transmitted infections – can be transmitted orally, vaginally and anally. Condoms can help stop the spread of the infection but aren’t always effective.

In fact, gonorrhea can be transmitted easily via unprotected oral sex.

“Oral sex hasn’t really been thought of as a way to transmit sexually transmitted infections, but actually gonorrhea transmits relatively readily via oral sex as do other sexually transmitted infections, so syphilis is another example,” said Vanessa Allen, chief of medical microbiology for Public Health Ontario.

It’s an especially topical issue amid a heated debate over Ontario’s sex education program, updated for the first time in 16 years. While some parents have expressed qualms over the mere mention of oral and anal sex (in the context of safe sex, and delaying sexual activity, in Grade 7), pedagogical experts and health care practitioners note that young people need to know how STIs are spread and how to keep themselves safe starting at a very young age.

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WATCH: Eric Hoskins said it is important to inform children at a young age to the dangers of STDs like the rise in cases of gonorrhea in Toronto.

“We always need to look at ways to improve of informing people of all ages, including those under the age of 18,” Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins told reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday. “So that they are armed with the information they need to make the right personal decisions, particularly as it pertains to sexual activity and the risk of transmission of sexually transmitted infections.”

The first mention of gonorrhea in the new sex ed curriculum is in grade 7 during a discussion on STIs and how they are spread. The teaching prompt explains that some STIs like gonorrhea, herpes, and Chlamydia have symptoms but can oftentimes be asymptomatic.

The curriculum goes on to explain various methods of preventing STIs and pregnancy including abstinence and various other birth control methods.

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Tell us your story: How did you learn about sexually transmitted infections? What do you think about schools teaching young people about safe sex?

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