Democrats say 13-year-old policy is resulting in higher HIV rates
The Dallas County Commissioners Court voted in 1995 to prohibit county health workers from distributing free condoms except in the health department’s clinic. That same vote also stopped the health workers from distributing needle sterilization kits to IV drug users and required county HIV education and prevention programs to emphasize abstinence.
Commissioners who voted for the ban said they did so because distributing the condoms and needle sterilization kits encouraged immoral and illegal behavior.
Now, concerned over the disproportionate number of minorities contracting HIV in Dallas County, Commissioner John Wiley Price has launched an effort to get the court to overturn the 13-year-old ban on distributing condoms.
And openly gay County Judge Jim Foster said this week he is behind the effort 100 percent.
Cost is not an issue, since the Texas Department of State Health Services provides free condoms to all county health departments in the state.
"What’s amazing is that there is grant money already allocated for that, but the county chooses not to utilize that money, or to utilize it only in a very restricted fashion," Foster said. "We either use it, or we’ll lose it.
"We’re seeing an increase in HIV infections. It’s spreading into the straight community, and it is affecting the minority communities in disproportionate numbers. If we don’t utilize that money to hand out free condoms, we’ll end up having to spend hundreds of times that much to treat people after they contract the disease," Foster said.
Although the actual number of AIDS/HIV cases in Dallas County was down in 2007, compared to 2000, the rate of new infections is disproportionately high in certain populations, specifically youth ages 13-24 and African-American women, according to Zach Thompson, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services.
Price, who told The Dallas Morning News he "can’t continue to join the ostrich head-in-the-sand group," brought up the issue at a recent commissioners court meeting. Foster told Dallas Voice this week that the commissioners could vote on lifting the ban as early as mid-January.
"Will it [the move to lift the ban] pass? It’s just too early to say," Foster said. "Two of the commissioners haven’t voiced any opinion, and one has said she wants more facts. We’re going to have to do some educating here, I can tell you that."
The two who "haven’t voiced any opinion" are Republicans Kenneth Mayfield and Mike Cantrell, both of whom were on the commissioners court in 1995 and both of whom voted for the ban at that time.
Commissioner Maurine Dickey has said she wants to study the issue further. Foster said commissioners have asked Thompson to undertake a "fact-finding mission" on AIDS statistics in the county and the effectiveness of condom distribution, and give them an update at the court’s Jan. 6 meeting.
But for many who work with people with HIV/AIDS, the answer is already obvious.
"Anything we can do to get condoms to people who are at risk needs to be done," said Bret Camp, associate executive director for Health and Medical Services at The Resource Center of Dallas. "Condoms are shown to be very effective when used properly and consistently. The facts can’t be argued."
Camp said the Resource Center uses private funds to pay for distribution of free condoms, and that officials there "recognized early on there was a need to get condoms to people."
And in a written statement passed on by Foster, Dallas County Health and Human Services Department employee Marissa Gonzales called the ban "frustrating."
The department’s medical mobile unit goes into the community up to five days a week to teach and treat patients, many of whom are poor and uneducated. County workers can’t distribute any of the condoms the state gives them for free, even though 51,000 condoms sit locked in a county storeroom.
"I can preach to them, but if I can’t give them the tools to help them, what good is it?" Gonzales said. "What good will that do?"
Thompson said the ban on distributing condoms anywhere but in the HHS building does hamper his department’s education and prevention efforts. But, he added, just overturning that ban won’t solve all the county’s problems.
"Would condom distribution be the silver bullet, the panacea? No, but it is one option that needs to be available to fight HIV and AIDS in Dallas County, and all our options have to be available to us," Thompson said in an telephone interview Tuesday, Dec. 23.
Thompson said while the debate over condom distribution is what’s getting attention in the media right now, "what we need to do is use that discussion to look at and talk about our overall approach and strategies."
Thompson noted that recent changes in the allocation of federal funds that put most of those funds into medical services have left agencies providing support services reeling. The county, he said, has to find a way to balance medical access, outpatient services, support services and prevention and education programs.
"It’s been 20 years or so since Magic Johnson was diagnosed with AIDS, and in those years, we have gone from seeing the highest rate of HIV infection in the white gay male community to seeing increasing rates in the African-American community and other minority communities," Thompson said. "What we have to do is use the model we saw in the gay and lesbian community, those campaigns for testing and awareness and prevention, and move that into the community overall.
We have to make sure that we have all our options available."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 26, 2008.