Canadian Forces STIs double those of general population

Documents show rates of some sexually transmitted infections among young men in the Canadian Armed Forces double those of the general population.
Condoms are readily available on military bases to combat the spread of sexually transmitted infections. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

The rate of some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among younger men in the Canadian military is double that of civilians in the same age range.

Data obtained by Radio-Canada through access to information shows overall, cases of chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea — infections that military officers must declare when it's discovered within their ranks — have been on the rise for the past 10 years.

Over a 10-year period, the total number of cases of chlamydia, the most common STI among soldiers, doubled.

Those rates are even higher among younger soldiers.

In 2006, three out of every 1,000 military personnel aged 16 to 29 reported having chlamydia.

By 2016, that ratio had jumped to 16 out of every 1,000 members, a five-fold increase. 

Overall STI rates across the Canadian population have been going up, but the data shows STI rates among soldiers younger than 30 are double those found among their civilian counterparts.

Those rates of infection vary by gender. 

While the rate of STIs among military men is much higher than among their civilian counterparts, the situation for women in the same age group is inverse: civilian women have more reported instances of chlamydia than women in the forces. 

Data may not show extent

Hélène LeScelleur, a retired manager with the Canadian Forces Health Services, says the stigma of an STI coupled with the secretive culture of the military may drive many soldiers to seek treatment in the public health system.

Those cases would not be reflected in military data because they may not have been reported to senior officers.

Hélène LeScelleur, a retired manager with the Canadian Forces Health Services, says the military might not be getting the full picture because some soldiers may be seeking treatment in the public health system. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

LeScelleur said the trend toward higher rates of STIs in the military can also be explained by the risk-taking personalities the job tends to attract.

She said after risking life and limb in combat, an STI may not be top-of-mind.

"I don't think it's a lack of awareness. I think it's a lack of understanding and incorporating this information," she said.

"I do believe that the effort is there from the Forces to spread out the information. It's how the person is responding to that [effort that] we need to look at." 

Statistics skewed by screening 

Lt.-Cmdr. Vincent Beswick-Escanlar, who is also a military doctor, agrees risk-taking behaviour is a factor.

He also attributes higher STI rates to a policy requiring regular screening for military personnel, as well as their demographic profile.

"The Canadian Armed Forces has a different demographic from the general population," he said.

"We tend to recruit more men, more younger men specifically, and that is often the group that is the highest risk for sexually transmitted infections."

He adds that not all STIs are immediately apparent, meaning many civilians may be living with an STI and not know it. 

Military doctor Capt. Vincent Beswick-Escanlar says risky-taking behaviour among young men in the Forces may contribute to the higher rates of infection. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

Lack of prevention programming 

While public health agencies across the country are battling the rise in STIs with prevention and awareness programs, there is no similar push in the military world. 

Condoms are distributed freely on military bases and on missions abroad, but when it comes to STIs there is no national military prevention and awareness program.

Each base is tasked with tackling the issue on its own. 

Beswick-Escanlar said there is no evidence-based approach that has so far been able to curb the trend, even among the civilian population. 

"If such an evidence-based effective program existed we would have been doing it all along," he said.