Quality of New Brunswick sex education questioned

New Brunswick reported 57 cases of syphilis last year. Before 2008, the province typically saw fewer than five cases per year. (Tom Bateman/AQ)

With cases of syphilis on the rise in New Brunswick, the executive director of AIDS Saint John is calling for more sexual health education in schools to combat a “frightening” outbreak.

“It’s hit or miss, but we can’t afford for it to be hit or miss,” Julie Dingwell said about the sexual health education curriculum now in schools. “We need to be bringing it up every year.”

The infection starts as a sore on the genitals or mouth but can turn into a rash, flu-like symptoms, problems with the heart or nervous system, or even death.

There were 57 cases of syphilis last year in New Brunswick, up from 37 in 2010. Before 2008, fewer than five cases were typically reported each year, according to the January issue of the New Brunswick Disease Watch Bulletin.

Most cases have been reported in the Moncton and Fredericton areas, but numbers are on the rise in Saint John and northern New Brunswick too. Ninety-two per cent of cases since 2009 have been male.

There isn’t any assurance that children are getting an adequate sexual health education in the classroom, Dingwell said, and more should be done to be frank with young people about sexually transmitted infections.

“In fact, there’s evidence that suggests when kids have great sexual education they delay their first sexual experience.”

The provincial department of education wasn’t available for comment.

Patrick Brennan has lived in New Brunswick his whole life. He took sexual health education in grades 8 and 9 and said the experience was a little embarrassing.

“In both classes it was just a chapter of a general health class that we all had to take. Both teachers seemed to be embarrassed to talk to us about it, and appeared to rush through the content. The result was most people cramming for a test at the end of the chapter and then forgetting a lot of it afterward.”

The St. Thomas University student said his education wasn’t entirely lacking, but there was a need for an instructor who was comfortable speaking openly about sex. Teachers would go over a particular fact quickly when they felt uncomfortable, he said, and usually questions from others were closed.

“It would have been far more beneficial to have a professional speak to us who wasn’t just a middle-aged science teacher or someone else who seemed to be roped into teaching the class.”

Brennan was eight or nine years old when he and his biological mother sat down to have “the talk.” She spoke candidly.

But when it came time for Brennan’s brother to learn the facts, their foster parents simply gave him an encyclopedia-sized book.

Because sex can be an awkward topic between parents and their children, Brennan said sexual health education should come from both the home and the classroom. While it is the parents’ responsibility to teach their children the basic facts about sexual health, he said schools should bring in a professional to answer questions that parents didn’t know or weren’t comfortable talking about.

Dingwell said sexual health shouldn’t be left to parents. An outlined curriculum across the province is an opportunity to ensure each child receives a good education.

“I don’t know that parents have the right message or information.”

In 2005, New Brunswick’s education department introduced a new sexual education curriculum for grades 6 to 8. The decision came with controversy from parents who believed it promoted sexual behaviour.

Glen Morgan, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Home & School Association, said the federation had no issues with the curriculum then and still sees no problems with sexual health education in classrooms today. The effectiveness of the program, he said, is a matter of opinion and varies from person to person.

“We haven’t heard any concerns expressed from parents that the curriculum is not appropriate and we haven’t heard any information from parents or educators whether the curriculum is effective,” Morgan said.

“The position of this federation in regards to matters of sexual health is that the primary educator is, and should remain, the parent. But there is an appropriate curriculum that is in place now.”

E. Sandra Byers is a professor and the chair of the University of New Brunswick’s psychology department. She specializes in human sexuality research and has conducted studies with students, parents and teachers in New Brunswick schools on sexual health education.

Byers said parents are 95 per cent in favour of sexual health education and two-thirds of parents believe it should start in elementary school.

“Most of the curriculum is in the middle schools,” Byers said.

“We also need sexual health education in the high schools when more students are engaging in behaviours that put them at risk for STIs. That is, as with any type of education, we need to keep reinforcing the message.

We also need to enhance the availability of sexual health services in the high schools.”

Syphilis has been recently diagnosed in people aged 17 to 65, from university students to professionals.

One in three syphilis cases in New Brunswick have reported having one or more anonymous sex partner in the last year. Dingwell said she doesn’t like the assumption that someone with an STI is promiscuous.

“I don’t think young people are out there having casual sex partner after casual sex partner,” she said. “That’s not the experience we see around here.”

She said she would like for adolescents to get real, up-to-date information about sex and sexual health to ensure safe experiences.

Young people learn better from their peers, she said, so schools need to have bright, lively people teaching them about safe sex.

“We just need to do a lot more for our kids. We owe it to them.”

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