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Don't you get it? 'Apparently not' is the only safe conclusion as Alberta launches tardy STI campaign

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Former Alberta health minister Ron Liepert

At the risk of belabouring the point, while it is a good thing the government of Alberta and Alberta Health Services are now taking action to control the spread of sexually transmitted infections, it is a disgrace that it has taken so long.

One key reason for the delay, which has already cost lives and will surely increase health care costs here in the Syphilis Capital of Canada: the ridiculous attitude of one previous health minister.

So when we congratulate Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky for trying to address this serious problem -- even if the solution proposed is a day late and a dollar short -- we mustn't forget that back in 2008 his predecessor Ron Liepert killed off a province-wide anti-syphilis advertising campaign because he figured the problem was caused by people who wouldn't take responsibility for their own behaviour.

Just in case you and Liepert missed it, the nine Albertans who have died of congenital syphilis since 2005 were infants, not a group known for their inclination or ability to take responsibility for their actions, let alone those of their parents.

According to Hansard, on Nov. 6, 2008, Liepert told the Legislature that "we really have to ensure that people accept some personal responsibility in this area." Three days earlier, he told the province's Standing Committee on Health: "The decision to not proceed (with a syphilis awareness campaign) at that time was my decision."

He also told the Edmonton Journal on Aug. 15, 2008, that "you have to remember, 95 per cent of Albertans are not impacted by (syphilis). I'm not necessarily going to subscribe to a province-wide ad campaign that could be communicating more to senior citizens than it is to street workers."

The always-diplomatic Liepert also suggested before the health committee that Albertans ought to "know who your partner is sleeping with." And whom their parents were sleeping with, too, presumably.

Under Liepert's predecessor in the portfolio, Dave Hancock, by the way, three senior public health physicians, including the one in charge of STIs and another who raised the alarm about syphilis in 2007, did not have their contracts renewed. None of them have ever explained why.

So, in 2009, Alberta reported -- and I emphasize reported -- 267 cases of syphilis, an increase of 99.25 per cent over a decade in a country where syphilis had almost been eradicated in 1995.

In 2009 Alberta also reported, the government's press release today admitted, 1,500 cases of gonorrhea, 13,000 cases of chlamydia, and 219 new cases of HIV/AIDS. These rates of infection are worse than in any other Canadian province.

So now, as Zwozdesky announced yesterday, the province will spend $2 million on an awareness campaign in bars -- where advertisements, presumably, will be placed above urinals in men's washrooms where their messages will be attended to carefully by their readers. In addition, the minister said, another $4 million a year will be spent on the program over each of the next three years.

Well, good. But we've hosed away the better part of three years when we could have been aggressively addressing this health crisis because telling everyone in Alberta the bad news offended Liepert's tender sensibilities.

Still, half a loaf is better than none.

The theme of the first phase of the new campaign will be "Don't you get it," we were informed yesterday.

Alas, the provincial Tories obviously don't get it.  Liepert now holds the critical energy portfolio and remains a trusted and influential member of Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservative cabinet. What's more, he turned up at Tory leadership front-runner Gary Mar's campaign opener, so presumably we can assume he'll be influential in those circles as well. (Hancock is also still in cabinet, as education minister.)

Finally, Albertans no doubt won't get the public inquiry into the syphilis crisis the NDP were demanding back in 2008. But then, we've moved on to demanding a broader inquiry into a broader health care crisis, which we won't get either.

All this said, Zwozdesky and his advisers at AHS deserve credit for finally getting it about kick-starting this campaign.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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