Nfld. & Labrador

Stigma, unsafe sex contribute to gonorrhea spike in Eastern Health region

In 2018, 60 people in the region were diagnosed with gonorrhea, compared with 23 people the year before.

Medical officer of health says number of cases likely higher than reported

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Eastern Health is warning people in the region of an increase in gonorrhea cases, but the province's chief medical officer of health believes lingering stigma around the disease may be hiding even higher infection rates.

In 2018, 60 people in the region were diagnosed with gonorrhea, compared with 23 the year before.

Claudia Sarbu said the spike correlates with an increase in public health campaigns about syphilis.

She said people tested for that — or any sexually transmitted disease — are typically screened for a number of infections, so concern about one disease may lead to more cases of others.

"We had repeated communications and PSAs in 2017 about the increased number of cases of syphilis," she said.

"I think it's related."

Sarbu said the increase was not specific to any region, age or sexual orientation and that there have been recent diagnoses in people as young as 16 and older than 50.

"I'm not necessarily concerned because I know we are doing our contact investigation," she said.

"My concern is related to the fact that we have stigma.… People are hesitant to go to their family doctors."

Not everyone has symptoms

Sarbu worries people are not getting tested because they are embarrassed about sexually transmitted diseases.

She said 40 per cent of people with gonorrhea experience no symptoms, and therefore are not motivated to get tested, even if they are at risk for infection.

There are infected people around who are unwillingly and unknowingly [transmitting] the disease.- Claudia Sarbu

Risks, Sarbu said, include having unprotected sex with a new partner or multiple partners.

"So there are infected people around who are unwillingly and unknowingly [transmitting] the disease."

According to Eastern Health, symptoms maybe appear anywhere from two to 30 days after infection and include painful urination and abnormal discharge.

Dr. Claudia Sarbu, Newfoundland and Labrador's chief medical officer of health, says an increase in concern about one disease — in this case, syphilis — often leads to an increase in reported cases of another — gonorrhea — as more people get tested. (Paula Gale/CBC)

The health authority said gonorrhea is easily treated if detected early.

Left untreated, it can lead to complications such as pelvic inflammatory disease in women, which can in turn lead to infertility and ectopic pregnancies. It can also cause other complications like widespread infection and arthritis.

Anyone who is sexually active can make an appointment to get screened through their health-care provider or a sexual health clinic.

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