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Peace Region not ready for boomtown bugs

Sexually transmitted infections can run rampant through communities
Samantha McRae, an HIV educator at Positive Living North, demonstrates how to put on a condom.

When Samantha McRae wants to gauge how people think about sexual health in the Northeast, she often turns to Dawson Creek Confessions.

The popular Facebook page, where administrators post anonymous messages received from locals, is a place where people are surprisingly frank in sharing their ideas about sexual health.

"All you have to do is look on [that Facebook page] to see there's still a lot of stigma associated with STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and HIV and Hep(atitis) C," said McRae, who is an HIV educator at Positive Living North, an aboriginal health non-profit.

"I kind of monitor it, and if I can, I try to provide advice. In some cases, I'll say, 'Call the health unit, you should really get tested.'"

But in so-called "boomtowns” like Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, even that level of outreach from a health professional often isn't enough to get someone into a clinic. 

McRae believes that Northeast B.C.'s already swamped healthcare system is barely equipped to handle the influx of a worker population at high risk of STIs.

STI screening and education services should grow along with the population, she said. But for now, McRae and other experts see a critical need that is not being addressed.   

According to a 2008 study by a team from UBC and the University of Victoria, the rate of chlamydia among 15 to 24 year olds in northeastern B.C. is 22 per cent higher than the provincial average. The chlamydia rate in the Northeast, extrapolated from a small sample, was 1,168 infections per 100,000 people, versus the provincewide average of 955.

The study is the most recent comprehensive examination of STI testing in Fort St. John.

"People were describing that time as a boom," said lead author Shira Goldenberg, who is now a researcher at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.  "Oil and gas seemed fairly new to the communities at the time."

Another of Goldenberg's studies found that chlamydia rates in Fort St. John doubled between 1997 and 2008 – a phenomena that roughly coincided with a new era of gas exploration.

As part of her research, Goldenberg spent two years traveling to and from Fort St. John, interviewing young people about their sex lives. In total, her study had 25 participants. Twelve were male, with an average age of 20. In terms of race, 56 per cent were white and 40 per cent aboriginal, while 32 per cent had worked in the oil and gas industry.

She described "rigger" culture as an often masculine environment that encourages hard partying and looks down on sexual health. Despite that, 72 per cent of those who participated in the study had been tested for STIs.

"The key message for me was that young people and oil and gas workers wanted to engage in testing and prevention," she told Alaska Highway News. "But there are a number of ways in which the oil and gas industries create contexts that make it hard for people to do that."

Long hours and weeks spent in worker camps were among the reasons young people aren't getting tested, she said, explaining that the rate of STIs in the Northeast is thus likely higher than reported.

"The public health clinics were very far away with hours that totally didn't work for people's work schedules," she said.

And when young people do make time to get tested, it's often hard for them to see a physician due to a critical shortage of doctors. As one healthcare provider quoted in the study said: "Part of making $80,000 a year is to work your buns off. So when they phone our clinic and say, 'I'm going to be in town tomorrow, I need to get tested' and the receptionist says 'we don't have an opening until next Thursday,' they're like, 'Oh screw you.'"

Both Goldenberg and McRae said the province should consider a mobile testing facility for the Northeast, as more and more workers flood camps in the hinterlands. A spokesperson for Northern Health said some oil and gas companies provide health services in camp, though he knew of no mobile testing facility operating in the Northeast.

McRae said the region could use more sexual health educators. A similar office once operated in Fort Nelson, but now McRae is the only person with her job description in the Northeast. Her regular duties include accompanying people to health clinics, making referrals and presenting in schools. 

More health professionals would help lower some of the barriers to getting tested, she said. McRae recently spoke with a person at a high risk of infection who had been turned away from a public health clinic. 

"When you build up the courage to do it, you want the service to be right there. If you have to wait, there's so much going on in people's lives. They'll just ignore it," she said.