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Closure of sex infection clinics may leave people at risk

Nurses in BC's Interior are decrying the closure of the five public health clinics that test and treat sexually transmitted infections (STI).

The decision by the Interior Health Authority (IHA) has shocked public health nurses in the region who are struggling to understand how officials could choose to cut these services to already vulnerable populations.

The cuts, for clinics in Grand Forks, Kamloops, Kelowna, Penticton and Cranbrook, leave the need for access to services with a gap.

"At a time when some STIs are on the rise in B.C., cutting these services is shortsighted," said B.C. Nurses' Union President Debra McPherson.

"For too many British Columbians, these clinics are their only access to primary healthcare. The decision to do away with STI/HIV clinics will disproportionately hurt people who feel marginalized to begin with.

"Each of these clinics sees hundreds of clients annually, providing comprehensive, confidential sexual health services from highly trained nurses to clients who are now left with inadequate alternatives."

"Thousands in these communities have no family doctor and many women are referred to these clinics for basic medical services like pap tests and pelvic exams," adds BCNU Thompson-North Okanagan Regional Chair Christine Sorensen. "If accessing treatment becomes too difficult, those infected may ignore their symptoms and continue to spread their infection to others. How does closing these clinics allow IHA to focus on the prevention of STI's?"

STI/HIV clinics staffed by nurses with specialized training, educate and guide clients on safer sex practices, provide counseling, immunize those at highest risk, provide on-site testing in a trusted safe environment and provide timely treatment to those who may not be able to access these services otherwise. The Interior Health Authority hopes that the thousands of annual clinic visits will be absorbed by family doctors and walk-in clinics.

In Grand Forks the clinic supports a number of people who do or have used needle injection drugs, and provides a safe place for youth who don't access other medical services.

Colleen Maloney, a public health nurse at the Penticton Sexual Health Clinic explains that "when the Penticton Sexual Health Clinic closes its doors at the end of December, it will leave the whole South Okanagan with a lack of sexual health services. I was optimistic that our comprehensive service model would be expanded to fill the service gaps documented in the Interior Public Health Sexual Transmitted Infection Review in 2006. The decision to close now has really taken us aback."

Nurses in the region are hoping to raise awareness about the STI clinic cuts and their anticipated impact. They plan to appeal to their communities to speak out to save these services.