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Spreading the love… but not the disease

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ONCE UPON A TIME, AN URBAN MYTH WAS spread by eager gossips telling the tale of what was to blame for no local blood donor clinics.

That tale, they would whisper, is no such clinics were held in Fort McMurray because it was such a hot bed for sexually transmitted infections.

Uh-huh. Yup, they would say. It’s true.

Well, turns out, it’s not. It actually comes down to economics.

Funding received by Canadian Blood Services, a non-profit organization funded by taxpayers through provincial Ministries of Health, is based on the number of units of blood that it needs to collect within a given year.

“We must therefore ensure that public funds are used as prudently and cost-effectively as possible,” says Deb Steele-Kretschmer of the Alberta & NWT division of CBS.

With 40 permanent sites throughout the country, more than 20,000 mobile clinics are held every year. The cost of operating a mobile clinic is quite high, and it escalates the further away they are from the nearest permanent clinic.

That’s because of the logistics involved, she explains, such as transporting staff and equipment to and from the site, providing meals and overnight accommodation to staff, and transporting collected blood back to CBS for manufacturing into life-saving products.

“As operators of the blood system, we also work in a highly-regulated environment that demands that blood collected at our mobile clinics be delivered for manufacturing within a very tight timeframe. Holding a clinic in a more remote location could impact our ability to ship the blood quickly to our manufacturing sites.”

Given those challenges, it’s obvious CBS has to focus on collecting blood in more densely-populated areas.

While blood is a carrier of health, it can also be a carrier of disease when sexually active people engage in unprotected sex.  
Remember the saying no glove, no love? Health-smart words to live by.

It holds true whether a drunken one-night stand with a hook up at a local bar, or someone out at camp on those long lonely nights, or a visit with a sex trade worker, or a new relationship not yet monogamous.

That little sliver of latex is all that can stand between sex partners and a 100% preventable virus.

Prevention of disease is the reason for promoting safer sex and healthy sexual behaviour, according to Brenda Yamkowy, executive director of HIV North Society.

And by disease, she means STIs and blood-borne pathogens such as Hepatitis C and HIV that, for the most part, are spread by blood-to-blood contact and the exchange of bodily fluids. And yes, that means semen. It also means they are not spread on toilet seats, sneezing, standing next to an infected person, through a hug, or using the phone after them.

“It’s really important that people understand that there is a way you can have safer sex and very healthy sexual relations by using protection,” she adds.

“It is about remaining healthy. Also, for each case of HIV or STI we prevent, there is a reduction in the cost of services for our health system.”

While the HIV virus can only survive minutes outside the body, the Hep C virus is quite hardy and can stay alive in water or water containers for up to three weeks. Even dried blood can still hold the virus. That’s why it’s very important people don’t share needles, or even nail clippers and razors.

“Say you’re clipping your fingernails and you happen to clip a little too close and a little bit of blood gets on the edge of the clippers,” cites Yamkowy. “Even though it could be quite a while before somebody else borrows them, that dried blood is still there and if they have clipped theirs a little too close…”

Razors offer more of a chance of nicks leading to blood-to-blood transmission.

Alberta’s STI and blood-borne pathogen action strategy says the risk of getting STIs and blood-borne pathogens can be reduced by educating populations at higher risk and exploring more innovative ways to promote condom use.

“That’s what we’re really trying to do: promote more condom use,” she says.

When a new couple is beginning a monogamous relationship, both partners should be tested before having unprotected sex, because, maintains Yamkowy, “you don’t know whom that person has been sleeping with before you.”

To expand the reach of its safer sex message, the society is soon launching its Transient Workers Engagement Project in camps to build relationships and meaningful engagement with transient workers within the Wood Buffalo region.

With more than 30,000 people living in the camps, sex is most definitely an after work activity.

“It goes on and the reality is human beings are going to have sex,” recognizes Yamkowy. “It’s an opportunity for us to teach transient workers and promote safer sex and healthy sexual behaviour.”

The focus will be a health fair with guest speakers addressing issues like STIs, HIV, and prevention, and Yamkowy is banking on occupational health reps from all the camps attending, and then taking the messages back to the workers.

Once that conversation has been initiated, the society will also be looking at ways it can get condoms into the camps for safer sex.

Yamkowy points out that HIV North has participated in past studies that have shown isolation and alienation within work camps does contribute to increased drug use and unsafe sex practices.

There is also a research segment to the engagement project: determining if there is, in fact, a connection between migratory workers and increased rates of STIs in other parts of Canada.

“We want to determine if there is a correlation between increased rates of STIs and HIV in Atlantic Canada,” explains Yamkowy. “We want to see if there is a connection between the migratory workers.

“We’ve heard by word of mouth that there is a connection. We want to really explore that further to see if there is and to also see if there is a way that we can mitigate that from happening so that we’re not spreading.”

For more information on the Transient Workers Engagement Project call Yamkowy at 780-538-3388.

For more information on being tested, contact the  Fort McMurray office, 780-791-3391 or visit


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One of those people who arrived in Fort McMurray for a short time – six months - but eight years later is still here. Love this place, the people, the outdoor escapades and the incredible heart of the community. Work hard, volunteer lots and would rather sit and chat with someone than do housework. Passport always at the ready to jet off to some wonderful global locale. So much to see and do.