HIV still Haunts Houston Region

The candlelight ceremony has become an annual tradition here in Houston. There will also be prayer services at churches, free HIV testing at clinics, and displays of memorial quilts. But the problem is that the people who attend those events often already ‘get it.’ Kathy Barton is with the Houston health department.

“Mostly what we were getting was ‘the choir’ at the candlelight vigil, the people who work with the AIDS community or have lost loved ones, not the people who really make decisions regarding funding and services that are available.”

That piano you hear in the background? That’s not a coincidence. This year the city decided to host a festive, catered event featuring a hot hors d’oeuvre bar and miniature pastries. The goal was to lure in key elected officials, the people with the power to make laws and provide budget funding for HIV testing and treatment.

“Houston ranks seventh amongst all cities with the number of cumulative AIDS cases.”

That’s Marlene McNeese-Ward, who leads HIV prevention efforts for the city. She spoke to a small crowd that included AIDS activists and politicians like state senator Rodney Ellis. She told them that 20,000 people have HIV or AIDS in the greater Houston area. That infection rates continue to be distressingly high, especially in the black community. And that they must continue to fight against complacence and apathy.

“Unfortunately sometimes that’s the challenge of some of these headlines and stories that come out about you know new advances in HIV research, is people believe the Magic Johnson theory: that all they have to do is take a pill and everything will be okay. And unfortunately we know that’s not the case. There are some asterisks and caveats as to why Magic Johnson has the wonderful health outcomes that he does. But also we know that people sort of see this as this is a way of life and it’s okay.”

McNeese-Ward has some goals for the upcoming Legislative session in Austin. One is the legalization of needle-exchange programs for drug users.

“We just see it as an important public health issue and certainly in areas where those programs have been implemented, we’ve seen dramatic declines in HIV transmission in that way. So New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and others have a long history of being able to provide such programs. And we have yet to be able to implement that here.”

She also hopes the Legislature will not take the budget-cutting axe to money that pays for HIV testing. Carrie Feibel, KUHF News.

For a list of events and clinics offering free HIV-testing, visit World AIDS Day Houston schedule.
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