Stronger Houston: Houston logging some of nation’s highest HIV diagnoses; health officials hoping for vaccine in near future

The southern part of the U.S. accounts for 51% of new HIV cases each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some regions throughout the south also lag in providing HIV prevention services and care.

HOUSTON – The southern part of the U.S. accounts for 51% of new HIV cases each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some regions throughout the south also lag in providing HIV prevention services and care.

Space City, the fourth largest metro in the U.S., is known for reaching new heights. H-town is also logging some of the nation’s highest rates of HIV diagnoses and infection.

Marlene McNeese is deputy assistant director at Houston Health Department. 

“The idea that we have most of the burden of HIV, unfortunately in the south really speaks to other system issues, healthcare, and healthcare for people who are uninsured and not easily able to get access to care, there are the implications, there’s more disease here, when those conditions are in existence. We actually average about 1,200 new HIV diagnoses each year.”

McNeese said the covid19 pandemic caused disruption and reduction in access to HIV testing and at times treatment.

A Houstonian who does not want to be identified spoke to KPRC 2 about his personal story with HIV. He was diagnosed in during the pandemic and said he had no idea he was positive at the time he was tested. 

“September of last year. My advice to everyone out there, get tested immediately. You want to know your status. If more people would get tested, we could slow down the spread,” he said.

The man who identifies as straight said his HIV diagnosis has changed his life for the better.

“I am much more health conscious. I am stable on my medication. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate.”

Gender, sexual orientation, age and race: are all irrelevant when it comes to contracting HIV. McNeese said anyone who is sexually active should be tested for the virus routinely. 

“The idea I am not getting an HIV test because I have done something risky, I am getting an HIV test as part of my annual medical exam,” McNeese said.

McNeese also reiterates prevention and treatment have come a long way. 

“What’s amazing now is the treatment and prevention for HIV doesn’t require this specialization. The ideal that any clinical provider can be the primary care expert for their patient, that’s the miracle,” McNeese said.

As the city of Houston continues to combat HIV, health department officials are doing what they can to help more people impacted by the chronic condition. 

“Part of what we are doing at the Houston Health Department is working with our community partners. We actually fund several organizations to provide in-community access, meaning not waiting on folks to come into our brick-and-mortar buildings, but literally going out into our communities, where people live, work, breath and play and taking testing access directly to them,” McNeese said. “We have to remove any barriers that may serve as a challenge for people to be able to get it, for many, especially in the city the size of Houston, it might mean transportation, just being able to physically get access and some of what we hope to do is to provide support where some of these services can be provided in the comfort of individuals’ homes. I think the other part of the gap is we have to think through, how our systems are set up, so people who are already marginalized, stigmatized feel safe in a welcoming space when they seek out these services, and unfortunately, that is still a challenge and a barrier we are trying to overcome.”

The first reported case of HIV was recorded in 1981. The virus spread quickly, becoming a global pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, more than 40.1 million people have died from HIV/AIDS complications.

“We haven’t been at that place for many of our communities for a long time. So, it’s not the death sentence anymore,” explained McNeese.

While the fear and terror of HIV might be behind us, McNeese echoed the virus is encouraging new research each day, which makes way for a healthier and Stronger Houston.

McNeese said she hopes a vaccine for HIV is in the near future. She said telehealth systems brought about by the pandemic have been critical in the fight against the virus.

According to health officials, undetectable equals untransmittable. People who maintain an undetectable viral load for at least six months and remain on treatment cannot transmit HIV through sex.

Click here for more information on resources from the City of Houston for HIV.

Read more stories from KPRC2 ’s Stronger Houston series.

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