The bloodred banner headline—“AIDS fiend strikes again”—that greeted readers of Halifax’s usually staid Chronicle-Herald on Sept. 19 was both star-
tling and unequivocal. And the story the paper told was equally lurid: a promiscuous, bisexual 20-year-old carrier of the AIDS virus allegedly had infected three Halifax wom-
en—one of them now six months pregnant— and disappeared after health authorities and the police got involved. Although officials in Ontario and the United States have faced cases of AIDS victims knowingly spreading the disease, the incident for legal and health officials in Nova Scotia—where there have been only 32 of Canada’s 2,001 recorded cases of AIDS since 1981—was unprecedented and perplexing.
In January, officials of the Atlantic Health Unit advised a man to have himself tested for AIDS. According to AHU director Dr. David MacLean, two women identified the man after they had tested positive for the AIDS virus. The test results of the young man were also positive. Then, said MacLean, a nurse on his staff told him that a family friend who was expecting a child was living with the young man. She in turn tested positive, and MacLean says that there is a chance that her baby will be born with the AIDS virus.
Health authorities turned the matter over to Halifax police after deciding that identifying the man overrode the principle of confidentiality. Said MacLean: “It was in the interest of the public’s health.” The police issued a warrant to seize medical records and, on Sept. 23, issued a Canada-wide warrant for the arrest of a man, allegedly for knowingly infecting a woman. Wanted on a charge of criminal negligence causing bodily harm was one Scott William Wentzell of Halifax.
Before the charge, there was a vigorous debate about how to proceed with the case. Nova Scotia Health Minister Joel Matheson said that there were two options: invoke the Criminal Code or a civil sanction such as quarantine. Under the Health Act, the ministry can quarantine anyone endangering the public health, as was done in years past for carriers of tuberculosis. Matheson said that the quarantine option should be used “only after professional advice, on a case-by-case basis.” However, representatives of AIDS support groups vehemently opposed quarantine. Declared Peter Wood, chairman of the Nova Scotia Persons with AIDS Coalition: “This has to be done through the courts. Otherwise you’re talking about quarantine, and we don’t even want to discuss quarantine.”
But others, including Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay, said that although the individual’s rights are better protected under criminal jurisdiction than civil, “still the Criminal Code should be brought to bear only in the most extreme cases.” MacKay added that to prove a criminal charge, the intent to commit a crime must be demonstrated—and this can be difficult in AIDS cases in which one of the known side effects can be impaired mental competency. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the wanted man remain unknown. Indeed, the police and the AHU’s MacLean said that they did not know where Wentzell is. But clearly, with or without him, the controversy surrounding his case will continue.
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