More cases of HIV/AIDS have been reported in Kenora, Ont., in the last 12 months than in the last eight years, and a doctor practising in the community says a safe consumption site is needed to help address the issue.
In 2022, the Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU) reported nine confirmed cases of HIV/AIDS in the northwestern Ontario city. In the previous eight years, there were only eight confirmed cases, according to NWHU data.
Dr. Jonny Grek says that number may be much higher — he's seen 15 new cases reported in the past nine months, and said the health unit's data lags behind what he's seeing at the ground level.
"Our numbers are from the street point-of-care testing, which are then followed up with a lab confirmed test — and so far, there have been no false positives on the point-of-care testing," Grek told CBC News in an interview.
The NWHU's medical officer of health, Dr. Young Hoon, doesn't dispute Grek's numbers, but said the NWHU must follow provincial standards for reporting cases and cannot rely on preliminary testing or other clinical information to confirm them.
Grek practises family medicine at Kenora's Paterson Medical Centre, and provides outreach and street medicine through the Sunset Country Family Health Team. He's seen a lot of struggle on Kenora's streets since he came to the area 4½ years ago.
"The attitude and the feel on the streets here is one of, I would say, despair on top of despair," he said.
He works closely with people who may be more vulnerable to viruses, including those who use drugs, are homeless or underhoused, or work in the sex trade.
Being a street doctor means Grek literally meets people where they're at. Sometimes, they may feel more comfortable doing a consultation at the homeless shelter or the Kenora Fellowship Centre.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks the immune system, or its ability to fight off disease. Left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which can be controlled through various treatments.
In Ontario in 2020, it's estimated over 22,000 people were living with HIV, according to the Ontario HIV Epidemiology and Surveillance Initiative.
The virus is primarily spread through bodily fluids including blood and semen. Young Hoon said unprotected sex, and sharing needles or drug preparation equipment are the most common ways people contract HIV/AIDS.
Officials in Kenora recently held an emergency council meeting where members of the public shared their concerns regarding public safety in the downtown area.
Grek, who was at the meeting, said there was a collective agreement that conversations about these issues need to be had — but there was also a lot of anger and resentment about the situation.