Ottawa Public Health is drawing inspiration from New York City’s free condom program to curb the rise of sexually transmitted infections.
“We want condoms to be as accessible as possible,” said sexual health program manager Andrew Hendriks.
Ottawa has higher rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis compared to the rest of Ontario, according to a sexual health status report released Monday.
In 2010, there were 2,926 cases of reportable STIs in Ottawa — more new cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis than any other one-year stretch in the last decade.
Almost 80% of cases were chlamydia, usually contracted by women.
Geographically speaking, chlamydia cases are highest among 15- to-29-year-olds in the Byward Market, Vanier South, Sandy Hill-Ottawa East, Vanier North, Civic Hospital-Central Park, Bells Corners East, then Hunt Club South Industrial, in that order.
OPH distributes more than 900,000 condoms each year, yet infection is spreading.
Here’s why: Condoms aren’t being used, people are hooking up with new prospects, they’re having sex with multiple partners, and men are sleeping with each other, spreading gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis.
Roughly 70% of women and 50% of men infected with chlamydia have no symptoms, but the infection can cause infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease and damage to other organs.
Gonorrhea is contracted from unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex.
Tests can detect both infections are they’re easily treated with antibiotics.
Overall, semen, vaginal secretions, saliva and breast milk contain infectious agents that can be contained by condoms.
The campaign, to be launched in 2012 as part of the city’s sexual health strategy, is in its preliminary stages and aims to dramatically increase condom distribution and use.
For that to happen, OPH is looking at ways to “leverage technology as a way to connect with young adults,” Hendriks said.
That means communicating via smartphone applications, text messaging, or specific websites.
The New York City health department got creative in 2007, launching the first branded city condom in the U.S. using a Lifestyles rubber with its own special wrapper.
They also released a condom finder mobile phone app on Valentine’s Day, letting users search for the five closest locations dispensing free condoms.
Using similar initiatives “may work for us — every city is different,” said Hendriks.
And here’s the good news: There have been fewer reported cases of HIV and hepatitis B.