February 9, 2011
Ottawa's sexual health clinic in the ByWard Market was overwhelmed by the city's dramatically rising STD rates. Last year, the clinic saw 200 more people every month than in 2006, and it still had to turn away about 45 others each month.
The clinic closed for renovations on Nov. 19, during which it saw only the most urgent cases, and it reopened Jan. 21 with two new exam rooms. Other spaces were redesigned to accommodate the interviewing and examination of patients in the same space. Dr. Vera Etches, an associate medical officer of health in Ottawa, notes the expansion is fine for now; but if clinic visits keep rising, they will have to turn people away again.
Ottawa has the highest number of chlamydia cases and HIV rates in Ontario, and gonorrhea and syphilis rates are rising considerably, especially among residents ages 15-24. With more people visiting the clinic, more diagnoses will be made, Etches said.
"People are having more sexual partners, they're not using condoms all the time, and that's how the infection spreads," said Etches.
Etches would like to hire more staff, but Ottawa is in a hiring freeze. Ottawa Public Health is seeking an 11 percent budget increase in part to fight the rise in STDs.
Dr. Hunter Handsfield, an STD expert and former head of a Seattle sexual health clinic, worries that every barrier to testing and treatment "could have a significant negative effect, because it could be that among people who otherwise would get treated there, that they delay care, maybe their symptoms are not severe so they continue sexual activity," he said. "That can't be good, especially in an environment where you've had rising rates of visits to the clinic over the last couple of years."