Student Life

If you’re planning on getting busy this Valentine’s Day, stay protected

Spread the love, not the disease

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, some of us who are romantically involved are preparing to spend the day with that special someone. While indulging your partner is important, so is keeping in mind the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or disease (STD).

According to Women’s Health, the difference between STIs and STDs are whether symptoms are present, and ailments are only described as diseases when symptoms are present. “You can have an infection, such as chlamydia, without symptoms,” said Angela Jones, M.D., an ob-gyn at Healthy Woman Obstetrics and Gynecology in Monmouth, NJ. Since 2005, the Canadian government has recorded a rise in reported STD/STI cases, mainly cases concerning chlamydia, which is the most reported sexually transmitted disease in Canada. In 2009-2010, 68 per cent of sexually active 15 to 24 year-olds reported using a condom the last time they had intercourse, according to Statistics Canada.

The World Health Organization states that there are more than 30 viruses, bacterias and parasites that can be transmitted sexually. Of these, eight are the cause of most reported STD/STI cases. Four are currently curable: syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis. The other four—hepatitis B, herpes, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and human papillomavirus (HPV)—are viral infections and are not curable.

“While most people think that STDs[/STIs] are only transmittable through sexual intercourse, like penetration, there are really, in fact, many ways of getting them,” said Charlotte Gagné, a sexology student at the Université du Québec à Montréal. “For example, [they can be transmitted through] skin to skin contact, blood and sharing sex toys. It can also be passed down from mother to child.”

One of the best ways to avoid contracting and spreading STDs/STIs is to use protection. Condoms are accessible, relatively affordable and they come in various styles that can make using protection fun. Trojan has ribbed condoms geared for female pleasure, their thinnest condom called the ‘bareskin’ and even benzocaine-lubed condoms for climax control, all meant to maximize pleasure. Just be sure to always check condoms for rips or tears, as well as expiry dates, before use.

STDs/STIs not only affect you physically, but mentally and socially as well. “Our society judges and rejects people with STDs[/STIs],” said Gagné. “They are often seen as prostitutes or floozies. People are afraid to touch them, they act as if they have the plague.”

Kelyane Dizazzo, a student at Collège Ahuntsic, has contracted chlamydia in the past. “It felt like the end of the world,” said Dizazzo. “I know it could’ve been something much worse, but when I got the news, I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. Whether you’re single or in a relationship, the importance of getting regularly tested for STDs/STIs while sexually active is pertinent. Concordia Health Services recommends getting tested every two months, or between different sexual partners.

“I lost some friends,” added Dizazzo. “Their girlfriends didn’t want them near me, let alone talking to me.” Dizazzo went on to explain that if she had known how badly this disease would affect her, she would have been much more careful.

“Being informed is key,” said Gagné. “Knowing about the different types of STDs[/STIs] and how they can be transmitted not only helps you know how to protect yourself, but it lets you know what to expect if you are not careful.”
Being honest with yourself and your partner can help stop the spread of these sexually transmitted diseases. Having an STD/STI does not only affect you, it also affects your future sexual partners, and previous ones that could be carriers or infected as well.

“There a lot of resources available to help prevent STDs[/STIs], but you have to look for them,” said Gagné. “If you think you have an STD[/STI] or just want to make sure that everything is okay, go to an STD[/STI] testing clinic. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Valentine’s Day is about showing your loved ones how much you care. While Hallmark holidays will push us to buy material items as expressions of our love, what better gift is there than the gift of protection and peace of mind?

Feature graphic by @spooky_soda


Navigating HIV in university

Concordia to offer free rapid HIV testing pop-ups and film screening

In a country where it is a crime not to disclose that you have HIV before having sex, it’s no wonder having an STI comes with so much stigma.

Canadians who are HIV positive can face criminal prosecution for reasons like forgetting to use a condom or failing to alert their sexual partner of their illness before engaging in sexual activity. These people can be charged with aggravated sexual assault, which carries a mandatory designation as a sex offender and a maximum penalty of life in prison.

While these laws are in place for the sake of public health, they might deter people from getting tested. If you don’t get tested, then you can claim ignorance. If you aren’t absolutely certain you have HIV, you can’t be held legally responsible—right?

Unfortunately, this is the worst time in recent history to practice non-disclosure and unsafe sex. According to the Community AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE), the prevalence of HIV in Canada is increasing and has been since the late 90s. In 2014, an estimated 75,500 Canadians were living with HIV. This number represents an increase of 6,700 people, or 9.7 per cent, since 2011.

CATIE’s website states that more than one in five people living with HIV are unaware that they have the disease. This is extremely dangerous because HIV is a virus that anyone can contract, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. The illness is most often contracted through sexual contact or needle use. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bodily fluids—such as blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk—from a person who has HIV can transmit the virus to someone when they come in contact with mucous membranes (including the rectum, vagina, penis and mouth), damaged tissue or the bloodstream in any way.

In a university setting, where many young adults begin to experiment with sex and drugs—and sometimes both, together—students may be putting themselves at a higher risk of infection as a result of limited or no condom use. Luckily, resources to increase sexual education, STI prevention and knowledge about treatment options are available to students now more than ever—you just have to know where to look.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth

If you think you have an STI

If you’re a Concordia student and you’re worried you might have an STI, you can book an appointment for STI testing Monday through Friday at Concordia’s Health Services on either campus. If you’re experiencing symptoms, you book an appointment with a Health Services physician. If you don’t have symptoms, you can see one of the nurses. There are also a variety of other places around the city where you can get tested for STIs, including CLSCs, Head & Hands and a number of clinics in the Gay Village.

It will take approximately 10 to 14 days for Concordia’s Health Services to receive your test results. You must come to the clinic in person to get them, either through the walk-in clinic or by appointment, where a nurse will explain your results to you and refer you to the appropriate treatment options, if necessary.

The Concordia website warns that it is the patient’s responsibility to follow up after an STI test, noting that students should “never assume that ‘no news is good news.’”

Even if you are convinced you don’t have an STI, testing is recommended for everyone who is sexually active. Many infections show no symptoms, so Concordia’s health professionals recommend students get an STI screening done every six months to a year.

If you’re at high risk for HIV

If you’re planning on having sex with someone who may have an STI, use a condom. Using condoms properly and regularly is the only form of contraception that also reduces the risk of getting or transmitting an STI.

For students at a higher risk of contracting HIV from a partner or through injection drug use, Concordia can also supply you with pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is a preventative medication that people with a very high risk for contracting HIV can take regularly to lower their chances of getting infected. According to, prescription guidelines recommend that PrEP be considered mainly for people who are HIV negative and in an ongoing sexual relationship with an HIV-positive partner.

PrEP can only be prescribed by a healthcare provider. Concordia students can book an appointment with a Health Services physician to discuss whether or not it is the right HIV prevention strategy for them.

Without health insurance (public or private), the monthly cost of PrEP can be up to $995, according to Rézo Santé, an organization that provides gay and bisexual men with sexual, mental, social and physical health information. However, if you are covered by the Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec (RAMQ), PrEP is covered under your plan. However, unless you have received an exemption, there would still be a monthly fee (as of 2015) of up to $83.33.

Montreal pharmacist Maciek Zarzycki told The Concordian that, while PrEP is effective for preventing HIV, it might not be the most cost-effective prevention method.

“It is significantly more cost-effective to use condoms,” Zarzycki said. “For PrEp, you need a prescription from your doctor, as well as a form filled out by your doctor that would approve you to be covered by insurance.” He also noted that PrEP can have several adverse side effects, such as a negative impact on liver health and cholesterol levels.

“Considering the side effects and the cost, it is not the best solution,” said Zarzycki. “Condoms are just as effective in HIV prevention, are significantly less expensive and do not give you any side effects.”

HIV resources at Concordia

Concordia’s HIV/AIDS Project’s mission is to provide a permanent space for dialogue and research on HIV/AIDS and to support students who might be the next generation of HIV/AIDS researchers, activists and teachers. They offer community lectures, courses and internships for students. Their next event will be a film screening of Memories of a Penitent Heart, a documentary that “explores the relationship between memory, stigma and the AIDS crisis,” at 7 p.m. on Feb. 15 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The screening will be followed by a discussion with the filmmaker, Cecilia Aldarondo.

Concordia Health Services and the Concordia Student Union (CSU) will be offering a free, three-day, rapid HIV testing clinic this month. Testing at the pop-ups will be confidential, and the whole process will take only 20 minutes. Patients will simply be required to fill out a health questionnaire and briefly meet with a nurse to review the form. After the nurse collects a few drops of the patient’s blood by pricking their finger, they will receive their results about a minute later and have a post-test discussion with the nurse.

The free, rapid HIV testing clinics will take place downtown at the CSU in room H-711 on Feb. 13 and 14, and at the Loyola Hive on the second floor of the Student Centre building on Feb. 15, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

Student Life

HPV vaccine may not be the only form of prevention for women

McGill PhD student Joseph Tota, has recently launched a new research project on HPV prevention under the supervision of Dr. Eduardo Franco. This project, called CATCH, stands for Carrageenan gel Against Transmission of Cervical HPV and seeks to evaluate a possible alternative to the vaccination by the use of a lubricant that contains the algae carrageenan.

Photo by Flickr user Tulane Publications

“CATCH is a randomized controlled trial that was designed in response to a discovery made by scientists working at the National Cancer Institute where they identified carrageenan, an inexpensive gelling agent that is non-toxic, safe on animals and humans, to be a potent HPV infection inhibitor,” explains Tota.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the human papilloma virus (HPV) is the second-leading cause of cancer among women in the world, following breast cancer. With more than 120 types of HPV that fall into low-risk and high-risk categories, 75 per cent of sexually active women will acquire the HPV infection over a lifetime. HPV-6 and HPV-11 are two of the more common low-risk infections that infect the skin and genital area and can produce warts.  HPV-16 and HPV-18 are categorized as high-risk infections that can lead to cervical cancer.

In 2006, the Federal Drug Association approved the HPV vaccine, commonly known as Gardasil or Cervarix. The Santé et services sociaux website explains how Quebec offers the vaccine to girls and women as early as the age of nine as part of a free vaccination program administered in schools. Other girls under the age of 18 can be vaccinated for free at the CLSC or with their doctor. However women over 18 who don’t have medical insurance must pay approximately $130 per dose, a price set by the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board of Canada. For both teenagers and adults, three doses of the vaccine over a six-month period are recommended for proper protection, therefore the total cost is rather expensive and Tota explains perhaps not the most preventive after all.

“The current available HPV vaccines only target up to four different HPV types: 6, 11, 16, and 18,” and are  “effective only if administered to girls prior to the onset of sexual debut,” says Tota.

The carrageenan gel being studied by CATCH may be effective in preventing all types of HPV, if administered immediately before sex and among women of all ages. Accessibility and cost of HPV prevention is something Tota and his team are keeping in mind while they run this study.

“If our trial demonstrates carrageenan to be effective in protecting against all genital HPV types, then we expect that many more personal sexual lubricants will become available by different manufacturers containing carrageenan,” says Tota. “Despite being required to apply the gel on an ongoing basis, its costs are substantially less [than the vaccine].”

The gel must be self-applied prior to each act of sexual intercourse, “in the same way as other personal sexual lubricants that are purchased over the counter,” says Tota. A small amount (five to 10 millilitres) may be applied directly to the vagina, penis or condom prior to sex. Afterwards, the gel may be removed with warm water.

This discreet method of prevention would make it empowering for women, explains Tota, especially “women who are unable to refuse sex due to cultural, social, or financial arrangement.” For women in developing countries, where HPV infection is rampant, this gel may prove to be a useful adjunct to the vaccination which would have “enormous and immediate public health implications,” according to Tota.

Currently the HPV vaccine is the only form of prevention and has faced criticism over the years. In 2012, The Globe and Mail published an article expressing parents’ concerns and how their biggest fears revolved around not having enough information about the vaccine, feeling rushed to make a decision about whether their children should get it, and how they questioned its safety. The vaccine looms in the shadows of Big Pharma and some are sceptical about whether it is just a push to promote their vaccines.

In the United States, the vaccine has been argued to promote sexual promiscuity among young teens, an issue The New York Times addressed last October after a study proved that the vaccine is not going to give girls a license to sexual activity.

“Despite our best attempts to convince parents of its safety, some will continue to deny permission to vaccinate their daughters,” says Tota. “For children and adults who have been denied access to vaccination for whatever reason (cost, safety, or other reasons), a carrageenan gel may be the only other effective means to protect against HPV.”

For individuals who are against vaccines, Health Canada’s Natural Health Products Directorate has labelled the CATCH project as a natural intervention. Carrageenan is a gel naturally derived from three species of red algae. It has a long history of human use and has been employed extensively in the food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics industries as a stabilizer and emulsifier. CATCH has received the support and ethical approval from Concordia’s Student Health Services and the microbiology department at Université de Montréal, something Tota explains is necessary when trying to recruit students to be part of the trial. However, “[Carrageenan gel] should not be considered as an alternative to HPV vaccination in countries that can afford both methods of protection,” reiterates Tota.

HPV is a serious health issue for women and young girls and while there is a lot of talk about HPV in the media. Gabriella Szabo, health promotions specialist at Concordia, explains how it is important to get a pap test, get tested for STIs and discuss the vaccination.

“Unfortunately, the majority of women coming now to get the vaccine have already had changes in their cervical cells,” says Szabo.

“Cervical cancer screening with the pap test and/or the HPV test is a proven way to prevent cervical cancer,” says researcher and clinical specialist in women’s health, Dr. Marie-Hélène Mayrand from the CHUM research centre. “I will always argue that we should and could be doing more to improve women’s health, although, I would like to point out that Canada leads some of the most cutting-edge, academic research in HPV, as the new study by Dr. Franco’s team underlines.”

If you are a heterosexually active woman between 18-29 years of age and you are interested in participating in this study, check out

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