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Dallas Morning News
Dallas AIDS data may end condom distribution ban
Kevin Krause,
December 22, 2008
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 policy.

"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 county statistics.

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 said.

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 say.

"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 opinion.

"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.