Ottawa Public Health Needs to Come “Clean”

Michael Orsini and Marilou Gagnon criticize Ottawa Public Health’s recent sexual health campaign.


Public health folks are normally on the right side of things, but sometimes they get it colossally wrong.

Ottawa Public Health recently apologized for creating a banner ad that featured the caption “Was he lying when he said he was clean?” which was featured in Xtra, a popular lesbian and gay newspaper. The ad was part of the Public Health unit’s Sex it Smart campaign, which began several years ago to encourage condom use among youth aged 15-29 and address the growing tide of chlamydia and gonorrhea cases.

While the ad has since been pulled following an outcry from some members of the HIV community, serious questions remain.

First, how could Ottawa Public Health, which has patted itself on the back for creating public health programs that are creative, technology-savvy and responsive to the demands of a weary public, be so out of touch with the HIV community? You do not have to be an HIV expert to appreciate that more than three decades into the epidemic, HIV-positive people remain the objects of stigma and fear, and that this stigma has real consequences for their lives. AIDS activists and researchers have worked long and hard to combat stigma and discrimination, which was a defining feature of the epidemic when it unfolded in the early 1980s.

Ottawa Public Health’s half-hearted response to the controversy was to suggest that it sought input from the youth advisory committee about this particular ad, and that the committee suggested that they go ahead despite some of the concerns raised.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.