AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department (A/TCHHSD) released statistics Wednesday that show, on average, every 35 hours someone in the area is diagnosed with HIV. In Austin-Travis County, it’s estimated 1,000 people are unaware they even have HIV.
The health department says a report by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) compares health differences among nearly every county in the country. The health rankings compare 30 factors that impact health; including housing, jobs, education, smoking, obesity, teen births and child poverty. Austin-Travis County ranked 9 out of 241 reporting Texas Counties.
A/TCHHSD Director Shannon Jones says, “We are pleased once again to be among the top ranked counties in Texas. A large portion of our population does the right things to maintain health. However, we continue to address health inequities and conditions, with the support of city leadership and community partners, in order to expand the opportunity for all to be healthy.”
That said, the department told KXAN it’s important not to become complacent, because there are serious health concerns that weigh on the county, with HIV being a large one. Cases are up 40 percent over the last decade.
“Some of that reflects some good news in that there is improvement in the treatment and people are living longer with HIV,” A/TCHHSD Medical Director Dr. Phillip Huang said.
Though HIV is no longer a death sentence, Dr. Huang says the public health concern is very real, statistics revealing most noticeably, among black men.
Peter Reid has seen the progression of HIV/AIDS firsthand. “I have been an AIDS activist since 1981,” Reid said. It was a call from a friend during that time that changed everything.
“He says ‘well I have AIDS and I have 6 months’. And he died in 6 months. That was just… that was a moment for me that I realized I needed to do something,” Reid said.
Decades later, Peter’s journey lead him to AIDS Services of Austin. which serves 6,000 clients in Central Texas. Beyond the statistics, Reid has his own numbers he holds close.
“I’ve lost over 200. Over 200 friends and acquaintances since 1981 to this epidemic,” Reid said. “I used to keep an address book, and in my address book when someone passed I underlined their name and I wrote the date. And I kept that book, I still have that book.”
“There’s a whole generation now of people who didn’t live through their friends dying of AIDS,” Dr. Huang pointed out.
Motivated by a painful past, the community leaders are working to create a better future by slashing HIV numbers.
When asked what remains the biggest hurdle, Reid said, “Getting people tested and knowledgeable.”
At its most recent meeting, Austin City Council approved funding for the addition of one full time position for the coordination of HIV medical care services.
But over the last year, Texas leaders have cut or tried to cut funding for HIV prevention programs and services. Last April, the Texas House slashed $3 million in state funds to prevent HIV. They directed the money toward abstinence education. Ultimately, the move did not pass the final Texas budget. But then in December, the Texas Department of State Health Services cut funding for Planned Parenthood’s HIV prevention program. Since 1988, it has paid for 138,000 HIV tests. Those tests have let 1,200 people know they are HIV-positive.