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Public Health looking at the impact of HIV cases

Have criminal charges affected gay men's behaviour?

Ottawa Public Health is launching a research project targeting gay men and men who have sex with men.

The study comes as a result of the arrest in May 2010 of a man charged with aggravated sexual assault for failing to disclose his HIV status before having unprotected sex.

The police issued a press release with the man’s name, photo and HIV status. The incident was further aggravated when the Police Liaison Committee to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans community issued another release labelling the man a “sexual predator.”

Vera Etches is the associate medical officer of health for Ottawa Public Health and chief investigator on the study.

“We saw this as an opportunity to learn from the community how this type of incident affects behaviour,” says Etches. “We know the community most affected appeared at that time to have been gay men, whether HIV positive or negative, so we are focusing our initial enquiry on that population.”

The study is two-pronged and will use both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

The study will look at the various testing practices, such as anonymous versus nominal (name-based testing) to see if the press release had any impact on testing patterns.

“We believe that that was part of the intent of the publication — to let people know if they were at risk, so we are looking at whether the intention there was met,” says Etches.

Researchers will also look at the types of testing that occurred in the two four-week periods after the incident in May 2010. The results will then be compared to the same time period from the previous year.

Data for the tests will be taken from multiple sources, such as Ottawa Public Health’s sexual health centre and other HIV testing sites in Ottawa. Researchers also hope to get data from the Ontario Public Health Lab.

The study participants will be interviewed about their attitudes and behaviours, their opinions on the criminalization of HIV, how they regard the publication of the name of someone charged with nondisclosure, and their reaction to the press release.

Although the study grew out of the 2010 incident, Etches does not believe that it will be possible to attribute the results to the one event.

“We will likely be hearing people’s ideas in general on disclosure,” says Etches. “There may be some things we can relate to the event, but we may not be able to directly attribute everything to that.”

All interviews will be confidential, and neither the police nor Public Health will have access to any discussion between the researchers and participants.

Recruitment for the study is set to begin the third week in February. John Murray, research assistant for the project, has been canvassing community health centres, organizations, coffee shops, bars, and meeting places outside the town centre to ensure a diverse sample of participants.

Interviews will begin as soon as participants have contacted the research assistant. They will be briefed on the study and asked to sign a consent form. Interviews are expected to last one hour and all participants will be given an honorarium.

Etches expects the research project to be wrapped up within six months, including the release of the report. The study will be disseminated through various community organizations, including the HIV working group.

The working group was established in 2010 to look at the handling of HV-nondisclosure cases after the May incident. It comprises members of the police, public health and community agencies, and it is looking at how the city of Ottawa, together with designated agencies and volunteers, can deal with policy procedures surrounding the nondisclosure of HIV status.

Both the working group and the research study are intended to improve methods of handling HIV-nondisclosure cases and to learn more about how the community is affected. The public heath study is the first of its kind.

“We don’t believe that people have tried to quantify the impact on HIV testing, so we do think this is a valuable examination to add it to people’s knowledge about the issues,” says Etches.