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After two years of toxic fallout, Toronto is finally picking up the pieces.
Rescued from a deadly outbreak of gonorrhea that swept the city in 2015, Ontario’s largest city says a new outbreak of syphilis has been confirmed.
With fewer outbreaks of gonorrhea and syphilis worrying cities around the world, Toronto plans to return to its healthy programs once again.
In 2015, the city closed its facilities until early 2016 when new guidelines on sexually transmitted diseases came into effect.
During the three-year wait, Toronto’s public health services shut down its 96 indoor and outdoor centres for health education and workshops, recreational programming and HIV testing.
Courses didn’t have teachers, instructors or groups of people to consult, leading to a reduction in the quality of “artistic experiences”.
While women traditionally participated in the indoor sessions, non-students no longer learned about sexual health.
“Because there was no mass changing of the tone of the services themselves, people decided not to use them, effectively cancelling out their effectiveness,” said community health worker James Crowe-Harris.
Add to that the fact that many young people stopped attending anyway, with their methods of cleanliness and safety made up of hand-washing and hand-washing stations.
Thousands of people had “interruptions to their healthy behaviours”, said Carrie Klebuytz, director of prevention for the Toronto Public Health Services.
“There are still pregnant women with babies at risk because they may have had a sexual contact with an HIV-positive person. There are an increasing number of young people engaging in unsafe sex and that’s really the challenge to, how do we change the behaviour?”
A nanny state or innovation?
In the wake of the pandemic and unsafe sex boom, many have been left sceptical about Toronto’s plan to reopen facilities.
“The practice of having a free-range culture is disappearing and I don’t think its coming back,” said Jason Taylor, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies public health.
“This is an ideological nanny state,” he continued. “Some people in Toronto want to live in an environment where there is no public sector.”
But the city said the trend towards safe sex and infection prevention services is expanding, with more municipalities offering their residents information, encouragement and counselling.
Tasha Zoelle, a facilities manager for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Culture department, said sexual health is a large part of public health services in every city, and it is “well-aligned with the goals of Toronto.”
The services returned in July with an updated website that offers information and training, and they are planning to resume their regularly scheduled child care classes this month.
But now, they are facing another challenge – an influx of cases.
“It’s still really difficult to respond to these infections,” Ms Zoelle told CNN.
“It’s still really important for us to have the infrastructure to respond to these infections… but having these long times of closure certainly played a role in that.”
Gonorrhea and syphilis were previously unheard of in Toronto, said Carol Henderson, the executive director of the health services’ sexual wellness strategy.
In the 1867 founding of the city, there were no toilets and none of the buildings went unoccupied. However, due to the HIV crisis in the 1980s, the city renovated its facilities to be first class for all.
With a curriculum that emphasises sex and relationships, the sexual wellness services now have roughly 70 clinics and locations providing “enriched programming and assessments for adults and youth,” said Ms Henderson.
“Traditionally, sexual wellness is about hygiene or the overall health aspect. Our programs are geared more towards prevention and education around sexually transmitted infections.”
The city also runs a sexual risk prevention support group, provides comprehensive screenings for HIV, provides HIV testing, and staffs centres who offer intervention, prevention education and referrals.
Beyond that, the parks, recreation and culture department’s Crowe-Harris hopes Toronto’s return to health departments will allow other cities to learn from their mistakes.
“It’s possible Toronto can have a model for other parts of Canada,” he said.