HIV Infection Rates On the Rise in Austin

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In the 1980’s during the AIDS epidemic, the gay community in Austin lost many members to the disease. Now, infection rates in Austin are again on the rise.

Ashley Womble at Austin Monthly looked into this increase, and found that the HIV-positive population in the Greater Austin area has grown by 40% since 2006. The population in Austin is also unique, reflecting shifts in attitudes due to increased access to medication, lack of access to comprehensive sex education, and the explosion of hook up apps in the last few years.

In Womble’s piece, Dr. Philip Huang, the medical director and health authority for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department reported that there are more than 5,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the Greater Austin area. Further, Womble found, “…he estimates that there are another 1,100 people in the Greater Austin area with HIV. ‘Many people don’t know their status, and that increases transmission,’ he says.”

The rates of infection in Austin don’t reflect the realities of other major urban areas, like Dallas and Houston. Houston has only seen a 12% increase over the same time period, and Dallas saw a decrease of 23%. What’s more, the populations most impacted by AIDS/HIV are different. Both Houston and Dallas see the highest rates of infection among African Americans, but in Austin the increase is seen the most sharply among young, white, gay men. Though it is also impacting other populations – 17% of the infected population are African American women – these young gay men make up the vast majority of those infected. For the men who survived the epidemic in the 1980’s, Womble found, it seems like deja-vu.

Those Womble interviewed called the problem the “Atripla effect.” With the advent of more effective medication that combines three different drugs into one, AIDS has become seen as less of an immediate threat and more of a manageable chronic illness.

Leah Graham, who is the Executive Director of the Wright House Wellness Center, explained to Womble: “We’ve gone from a lot of activism to acceptance that AIDS is a chronic, manageable disease.” Those most at risk in Austin didn’t experience the fear of the AIDS epidemic, and don’t have the same understanding of the disease. “Their attitude is, ‘I’m going to do what I’m going to do, and I don’t care what people think,'” Graham continued.

One HIV-positive gay man interviewed by Womble has lived through both. When he was infected, he was in a young man in a long-term relationship. Now single and in his forties, he described a shockingly cavalier attitude in his interview. “I’ve had offers from people who want to bareback [have unprotected sex]and think they can just take a pill and be fine.”

Educators in Austin are especially concerned with the rates of infection among young people in Austin. Austin Independent School District’s Assistant Director of Health Services described sex education in the district to Womble. “We teach students how to protect themselves against STDs,” she said, but, “One of the biggest misconceptions is that oral sex and anal sex are less risky.”

Austin ISD’s sex education curriculum comes straight from the state. Students do learn about condoms, but there are no demonstrations about how to use them properly. Further, alternative sexual relationships outside of heterosexual monogamy are acknowledged, but not addressed – especialy not when it comes to the risk of transmitting AIDS through sexual contact.

According to the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund’s 2009 report, Sex Education in Texas Public Schools, 52% of teens have had sex, and 42% of them reported not using condoms in their last encounter.

TFN also found that during the 2010-2011 school year, 74.6% of Texas schools used abstinence-only sex education. This means that almost three-fourths of Texas schools teach a sex-education curriculum that is exclusively focused on abstinence – with no mention of other methods for pregnancy or STD prevention.

    Texans must demand more adequate sex education for our students. At an age where apps like Grindr make hooking up easier than ever, effective sex education is integral to addressing the misconceptions around the continued severity of HIV infection. At a time when infections among young people is on the rise, this stubborn refusal to move towards more comprehensive sex education is not only obstinate – it is deadly.

About Author

Genevieve Cato

Genevieve Cato is a feminist activist and a native Texan. While not writing for the Burnt Orange Report, she can be found working for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, serving as a community member of the Communications Committee for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, and drinking copious amounts of pretentious local craft beers.

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