Chlamydia a tough - but important - topic for teens


May 12, 2008

Even on the best of days, talking to teenagers is not an easy job. When it comes to talking about sex, the lines of communication can shut down completely.

It was a tough crowd at York Humber High School last week, when Toronto Public Health brought its Check Up on Chlamydia campaign to students. The most attentive ones dissolved in embarrassed laughter; others folded their sexual-health questionnaires and launched paper airplanes at each other's heads.

Rates of chlamydia are rising among Canadian teenagers.

"There's a problem with chlamydia all over the place. There's a problem with unsafe sex," said Allie Lehmann, a sexual health promotion manager for the health department.

Chlamydia is the most-reported sexually transmitted infection in Toronto, with 7,000 cases in 2007. According to Statistics Canada, overall rates of infection within Canada went up by more than 50 per cent during the past 10 years.

Elevated rates of the condition plague "high-priority" neighbourhoods, many of which are low-income areas with less access to services and higher pregnancy rates, according to the health department. It is waging its war on chlamydia in those neighbourhoods with an arsenal of skits, merchandise such as bulky condom cases, voucher incentives for clinic visits, and posters uploaded directly to students' cellphones. Educators are speaking to about 1,300 students from the gymnasium stages of six Toronto-area schools this week.

Kimberlyn Dawkins, a Grade 11 student at York Humber, in the Eglinton Avenue-Jane Street area, expressed doubts that the campaign would make a difference. "Most people don't take it seriously. They feel it won't happen to them," she said. "I don't really know anyone who goes to a clinic."

According to her classmate, Nancy Atherley, students get sex education throughout school and have heard the messages before. "We learn it since Grade 7. We don't need to learn again." Students who don't take STIs seriously will not have their minds changed by a skit or cellphone wallpaper, she added.

Even in a forum as dry as a school assembly, there were moments of connection. Hip hop radio DJ rez DigitaL took the stage and woke up the crowd. "If you don't love chlamydia, make some noise," he said. The students immediately began clapping, shouting and cocking their heads like excited birds, looking for anyone nearby who was not professing their hatred of ill-smelling discharge. And when the audience was told they could have chlamydia without knowing it - three-quarters of women and half of men who have it do not see any symptoms - a boy kissed his teeth and whined, "Shoot."