Men between the ages of 20 and 24 were the hardest hit by HIV infection in 2005, according to a report released this month by Toronto Public Health.
The report, titled Communicable Diseases In Toronto 2005, found that while overall rates declined slightly, infections among young men almost doubled between 2004 and 2005. Within this group, it was men who have sex with men (MSM) who had the highest rate of infection, says Rita Shahin, associate medical officer of health for the City Of Toronto.
Ben Houghton, youth community education coordinator at the AIDS Committee Of Toronto, blames low self-esteem for the increase.
“Young people who have a high sense of self-worth and positive coping skills practice safe sex,” says Houghton.
He feels that low self-esteem is especially a problem for young queers, who may experience homophobia at home and at school.
“We put them through a school system that doesn’t recognize them and treats them as invisible in many ways,” says Houghton.
For the third year in a row the overall reported HIV-infection rate decreased — the 2005 rate was two percent below that of 2004 with 555 reported cases compared to 569 in 2004.
But it’s not a significant decrease, says Shahin, and the 2005 infection rate is still approximately four percent higher than the rates were in the 1990s.
Among the 412 men who were diagnosed with HIV in Toronto in 2005, 74 percent reported sex with men as their risk factor. In 2004, that number was 79 percent.
While she notes that the relationship between HIV and MSM is a complicated one, Shahin says that not knowing the HIV status of potential partners, meeting sexual partners in bathhouses, the use of recreational drugs like crystal meth, depression and mental illness are all factors that contribute to MSM engaging in higher risk behaviour that may then lead to higher infection rates.
Out of the 555 reported cases of HIV infection in Toronto in 2005, only 87 were women. The most common known risk factors for women were travelling to an HIV-endemic country (59 percent) and contact with a male partner whose risk factor was unknown (18 percent).
In addition to higher rates of HIV infection, young men also continued to have the highest rate of infectious syphilis in 2005 with infection rates increasing for men between the ages of 20 and 30; infection rates among men in other ages ranges decreased.
Syphilis increases the risk of contracting HIV, says Shahin, adding that Toronto is still in the midst of a syphilis outbreak within its MSM population. Thirty percent of those diagnosed with infectious syphilis were coinfected with HIV in 2005; the lowest level of coinfection since the syphillis outbreak started in 2002, according to the report.
In light of the increasing HIV-infection rates among young men, Houghton says the queer community at large has a responsibility to help our youth by helping them connect to the community.
“If we help them find that sense of self-worth then we’ve done a good job for community.”