by Susan Rokes
HIV Prevention Program Director at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast
We have come a long way in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and today we celebrate National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. More people are getting tested these days and using condoms, and practicing safer sex is part of common practice for many partners. Yet the epidemic continues to affect millions of people around the world and in the U.S, with marginalized communities disproportionately impacted. In the United States, HIV infection rates remain high, with more than 1.1 million people in the country living with HIV, and almost 1 in 6 being unaware of their status.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, African Americans face the most severe burden of HIV: Although Black Texans represented about 11 percent of the general population in 2013, they constituted the largest proportion of people known to be living with HIV (PLWH) in that year. The risk increases for men who have sex with men, particularly young African-American men, who unfortunately have the highest rates of HIV infection in the country.
As the HIV Prevention Program Director for Planned Parenthood in Houston, this is a reality I see every day. Planned Parenthood has an extensive HIV prevention program, because we know that PLWH are at higher risk for acquiring STDs, and in turn, having an STD infection increases an individual’s risk of contracting HIV. As a result, when our prevention specialists are out in the community, they not only provide HIV counseling and testing, but also gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and hepatitis C testing throughout Harris and other surrounding counties.
But HIV cases are not evenly distributed across Texas. In 2013, numbers of PLWH were highest in metropolitan areas, particularly Houston and Dallas. My team and I have a big task to complete—to make sure that everyone in the Greater Houston area knows their status. That’s why we offer free testing every day at different venues across Houston and surrounding areas. To commemorate this day, we are partnering with City of Houston’s African American State of Emergency Task Force at Dawson and Scott, offering free testing from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. (on February 7).
If you can’t get tested today, you can find us in many other locations. You’ll find our HIV team at your favorite bar (Crocker, TC’s, Neon Boots, The Room, Midtowne Spa), so don’t hesitate to come over and get tested. It is very easy, and we usually turn in results within 15 minutes. Our prevention specialists are discreet, confidential, very caring, and compassionate. Each prevention specialist is trained to test, give results, provide risk reduction counseling, and to assist people testing HIV positive, so they get linked to medical and case-management services.
In 2013 Texas had the 10th highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the nation. This is a Top 10 list we definitely don’t want to be on. It is imperative that we stay focused on reducing transmission rates and continue to work to educate people and identify ways to help them live healthier lives.
Looking to the future, we need strong health systems, committed political leadership, and sound policies to achieve our vision for the world we want: a world with zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths, and zero discrimination—and a world in which those living with HIV are able to make their own decisions about their health and lives.
Planned Parenthood is committed to combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Our health centers provide nonjudgmental, comprehensive, high-quality reproductive healthcare services critical in fighting the epidemic to women, men, and young people. Please call 1-800-230-PLAN to make an appointment or go to our website www.ppgulfcoast.org/everymonday to get more information about free testing at our health centers. Make sure to stay informed, to be safe, and to get tested.