Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Toronto STD Rate Exploding

Sep. 1, 2004. 01:00 AM
Unsafe sex on rise: Health official
STD rate doubles in past five years
Arrest brings grim statistic to light
BETSY POWELL
CRIME REPORTER

Days after police arrested an HIV-positive man for allegedly having unprotected sex with a string of unwitting women, Toronto Public Health is warning residents of a resurgence in sexually transmitted diseases.

On Monday, a 28-year-old downtown Toronto man was charged with aggravated assault for allegedly lying, or deliberately hiding, that he was HIV-positive to at least three women so they would have unprotected sex with him.

"Most people who are infected behave responsibly," said Dr. Rita Shahin, acting director of communicable disease control at Toronto Public Health. "It's unfortunate there's a small minority that doesn't and they put people at risk."

The rate of sexually transmitted diseases in Toronto has jumped over the past five years, with HIV, gonorrhea and chlamydia increasing by about 50 per cent, according to public health statistics.

"People talk about condom fatigue and people are tired of those messages. It's life-long behaviour so it's hard to sustain," Shahin said.

Police allege a downtown Toronto clothing store employee has known for more than two years that he was HIV-positive yet failed to disclose that to several women before having unprotected sex. "As a result we do tragically have one woman that has been diagnosed with HIV and we believe that there may be more," Inspector Bruce Smollet of the sex crime unit told a news conference.

He knew the women — "good, average citizens, hard-working people" — through work or socially, and police fear there might be others who had sexual contact with the accused, which is why they released his name and photograph, Smollet said.

Police have already received several calls and are urging anyone who has had sex with the man to call police, public health or a physician and get tested.

"I don't want to raise a lot of panic, but this obviously is a significant issue for people who may have had sex-related contact with (him)." But, Smollet added later, anyone having sex with those women could also be at risk, "so it's an ever expanding spiral of people who are going to be affected by this."

Police arrested Vincent Walkem on Monday after receiving information from a woman through an "agency," Smollet said, declining to give more details. Walkem was scheduled to appear in court for a bail hearing yesterday, but Smollet said police were recommending he be held in custody.

Contacted at her home yesterday, Walkem's stepmother, who didn't want to be identified, said she doesn't believe anyone in the family knew about his condition and was shocked to learn of the arrest through media reports. "I'm freaking here and his dad is out of town ... he's going to be devastated," she said. She described him as "quiet" and "nice" and said he has been on his own for many years.

Smollet suggested Walkem had been "ordered" to notify potential sex partners about his HIV infection but Shahin said all new HIV patients — except those not identified because they were tested anonymously — are counselled to ensure they have support and told about "their responsibilities" to ensure no one else is exposed. It's difficult to ensure compliance, but if public health learns of a breach it can issue a Section 22 order under the Health Protection and Promotion Act before further steps can be taken, including a fine or jail. But "I don't think we've ever gone down that road in public health yet."

A person can become HIV-positive up to three months after his or her last sexual contact. "If it's past the three-month window period, then their test right now would tell them whether they've been infected," Shahin said. "If someone had sex in the last month, they would need to be tested after three months following the last contact."