A recent The Globe and Mail article identified an increase in the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what is the reason for this surge? A national report by the Public Health Agency of Canada suggests that this increase may be a lack of testing and prevention measures for sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections. This begs the question as to what we can do to reinstate necessary prevention measures to keep the general public safe.

STIs are infections caused by bacteria or viruses that can be transmitted from person to person through bodily fluids. Although STIs have various symptoms, some do not present any, which may be one of the reasons for the lowered positive testing counts seen throughout the pandemic.

A 2021 report by the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada and Trojan Condoms reports a rising rate of STIs among 20- to 24-year-old Canadian university students. The same survey demonstrates reduced concerns about the risks of contracting an STI among Canadian university students, with 13 per cent of surveyed students reporting decreased condom use as a result of the pandemic. There still remains ambiguity on how exactly the pandemic influenced students’ safe sex decisions.

Natalya Mason, the Saskatoon Sexual Health Centre’s education and outreach coordinator, suspects that — in addition to overlooking preventative measures — individuals no longer felt the need to be tested for STIs during the pandemic. During the pandemic, some people may have believed that stay-at-home orders and a governmental call for isolation would result in many individuals staying home and refraining from sexual activity, and thus STI testing need not be offered. 

However, the rise of STI diagnoses indicates that this was simply not the case. Health officials are now worried that the lack of STI testing in recent months may lead to a sexual health epidemic, with cases of syphilis and gonorrhea surging through the country. A further concern is the lack of symptoms in some types of STIs. If STIs go undetected, more Canadians may unknowingly spread infections. 

In 2020, local clinics shared 213 test results from a free HIV-testing week with the Canadian AIDS Society. Five of these cases were found positive for HIV. According to Gary Lacasse, the executive director of the Canadian AIDS Society, this number of positive cases is staggering. 

In response to the alarming rise in STIs nationwide, public health officials put out a series of public service announcements — meant to increase people’s awareness of STIs — on websites and social media platforms, like TikTok and Tinder. 

So what can university students do to educate themselves and improve their sexual health? At U of T, some campus groups focus on reinstilling caution for sexual health and teach safe sex habits to university students. Furthermore, the Sexual Education Centre provides all U of T students and faculty with educational events and free safe sex products, including contraceptives and dental dams. This type of education is proving more and more necessary in student-centred environments as STIs become increasingly prevalent in Canada.