The number of Dallas County residents living with HIV and AIDS
has steadily increased during the past five years.
But county health workers still are not allowed to distribute
condoms in high-risk neighborhoods because of a controversial
Commissioners Court policy passed 13 years ago.
At least two court members, however, are hoping to reverse that
"I can't continue to join the ostrich head-in-the-sand group
given the numbers," said Commissioner John Wiley Price, a
Democrat who raised the issue during a recent meeting.
Dallas County had the highest HIV rate in Texas last year and in
2006, state officials say, although the reported number of new
cases has been decreasing.
The number of chlamydia and gonorrhea cases is up, according to
Before 1995, county health workers routinely ventured into local
communities to hand out condoms and needle sterilization kits to
those with the greatest risk of infection. But that year, a
narrow majority of commissioners voted to end the practice,
saying it encouraged illegal and immoral behavior.
The commissioners also approved regulations requiring county
health programs to emphasize abstinence. It gave Dallas County
the distinction of having the only public health agency in the
state that barred condoms in education and prevention programs.
Texas leads the nation in abstinence education spending, with $17
million laid out last year in public schools.
"'Just say no' hasn't worked with too many things," said Mr.
Price, who voted against the condom distribution ban in 1995.
Mr. Price, who is black, said he is alarmed by the number of AIDS
cases in local black communities and said he doesn't want to see
the numbers continue to increase "under my watch." Local Hispanic
communities also have been hit hard, mirroring a national trend.
Better treatments have led to an increase in the number of people
living with AIDS, federal health officials say.
In Dallas County, condom availability is not a question of money.
The Texas Department of State Health Services provides free
condoms to all county health departments in Texas. The county
Department of Health and Human Services has condoms available in
its clinics to those who ask for them, director Zach Thompson
But many people at risk of contracting the disease will not
necessarily come to the county health department building, off
Interstate 35E just north of downtown, AIDS awareness experts
"Any barrier to receiving condoms needs to be eliminated," said
Raeline Nobles, executive director of AIDS Arms, a Dallas
nonprofit. "It's better to go in the communities that are high
risk because they may not come to you."
Community organizations like hers have advocated for a change in
the county's policy for years. She said she's thrilled that it's
finally up for discussion and believes it will be changed.
Mr. Thompson said his department has a mobile medical clinic that
visits neighborhoods with people who have a high risk of
contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. It
offers screenings, treatment, testing, counseling and referrals-
but no condoms.
County Judge Jim Foster, a fellow Democrat of Mr. Price's, said
it's time to end the ban on condom distribution.
"For the cost of one dollar we can save a couple hundred thousand
dollars in medical bills," he said.
"A lot of people thought a lot of these diseases would go away."
It's not clear whether Mr. Foster and Mr. Price have enough votes
to reverse the county's condom policy. Two of the court's three
Republicans - Kenneth Mayfield and Mike Cantrell - voted for the
condom distribution ban in 1995.
They could not be reached for comment.
Commissioner Maurine Dickey, one of the newer Commissioners Court
members, said she wants to study the issue before forming an
"I want to listen to the discussion and see what the situation
is," said Ms. Dickey, who is seen as a moderate and potential
swing vote on the issue.
Shortly after commissioners enacted the 1995 ban, they agreed to
a compromise under which privately donated condoms would be
available in county health clinics.
Local medical professionals blasted their decision at the time,
saying it would endanger public health. Federal and state
agencies cut some grant funding to the county for disease
prevention and education efforts.