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AIDS Watch: HIV Testing, Texas Style

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Proposed legislation will make our great state even greater.

KellyMcCann_WPTN
Kelly McCann

By Kelly A. McCann

I recently returned from a trip to San Antonio, one of my favorite cities in the U.S. I appreciate the care with which downtown San Antonio has been laid out for the visitor.

Many attractions are within walking distance of one another, and others are just a short trolley-ride away. I delight in Latino (and especially Mexican) culture—the customs, the art, the food—and SATX has all of those in abundance. And of course, I enjoy the tourist hot spots, the beautiful Riverwalk and the bargain-filled El Mercado. Who wouldn’t?!

My favorite attraction in the Alamo City is the Alamo. I have great interest in history, especially the history of our great state, so the Alamo is almost like Mecca for me. So important is this little piece of Texana, I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I am now the owner of a cutting from a Cholla cactus growing on the hallowed grounds of the Alamo! (Be still, my heart!)  

 Obviously, I’m a proud Texan.  

But I am not blind to the foibles of my beloved state. We’re too politically conservative for my liberal lesbian tastes. We still have too many prejudiced Texans who discriminate against racial and sexual minorities. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We don’t do enough to educate our children or protect our environment. And we need to make drastic improvements in HIV prevention.

 On December 1, 2008, the 20th World AIDS Day, the Houston health department announced that our area’s HIV-infection rate is almost twice the national average! And our rates, while lower than New York City or Chicago, are higher than any other Texas city.

 In Harris County, there are 44 new infections per 100,000 residents while nationwide the rate is 23 infections per 100,000 persons. According to the city’s Bureau of HIV/STD and Viral Hepatitis Prevention, this alarming statistic is accurate and reflects the use of new scientific technology that can actually distinguish recent HIV infections from long-term ones.

Based upon the improved technique for determining new versus existing infections, in August of last year, the CDC increased their estimate of the number of new infections occurring each year in the U.S. from 40,000 to 56,300. The new figures for our region are in line with the CDC’s revised numbers.    

So, what’s being done to combat HIV in Houston?  

 A number of local AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) conduct scientifically proven interventions designed to address HIV prevention within specific populations. For example, Legacy Community Health Services provides prevention education to persons who are already infected with HIV in order to help them avoid infecting others. AIDS Foundation Houston (AFH) utilizes social network leaders in a peer-based approach to convey HIV-prevention information to gay and bisexual men. And still other organizations apply various prevention methods to reach youth, women, and persons of color.  

In addition to prevention education, Houston ASOs provide opportunities for community members to get tested for HIV. Planned Parenthood, St. Hope Foundation, Bread of Life, City of Houston, and a number of other providers conduct HIV testing at clinic sites and at special events around the city. Such service provision is vital because knowing one’s status is the first step to preventing further infections.  

 But testing by ASOs and the city health department is not sufficient. Our state needs to do more to normalize HIV testing so that each time you visit a doctor’s office or hospital for health care, you can receive an HIV test.  

 Enter Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis.  

 At a press conference at Houston’s city hall on World AIDS Day 2008, Sen. Ellis announced he would propose a new state law in the upcoming legislative session. The bill will require all health-care providers to offer patients HIV testing as a part of routine health screening. Of course, patients will have the right to decline, but it is believed most patients will agree to testing once it becomes a part of a normal doctor’s visit.

The bill will also require Medicaid and private insurance to reimburse for HIV testing.

 Sen. Ellis’ bill will implement recommendations for HIV testing made by the CDC in 2006 as a way of reducing the number of new infections. The idea is that people are more likely to change their risky behaviors and become more cautious about protecting their partners when they know they are infected with HIV. Making it even easier to receive HIV testing, say at your doctor’s office, means more people will be tested.

 So thank you, Sen. Ellis. We are pulling for you and this important legislation. Your vision for a healthier Texas and your leadership in the fight against AIDS are helping to create a future wherein fewer people will have to face the physical, emotional, and financial devastation of HIV disease. You make our state, and this Texan, proud.

 Kelly A. McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston. For testing information, call AFH’s Prevention Services Department at 713/623-6796 or log on to www.aidshelp.org.

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