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Houston's HIV infection rate nearly twice national average
  Ethnic populations are especially hard hit, new figures show
Houston Chronicle
Dec. 1, 2008, 10:58PM
Houston's HIV infection rate is nearly twice the national average, according to figures the city health department cited Monday as its most accurate estimate ever.
In 2006, about 1,700 Harris County residents became HIV-positive.
"In one year, one in 2,000 Houstonians becomes infected with HIV," said Dr. Tom Giordano, medical director at the Harris County Hospital District's Thomas Street Health Center, which treats about 4,000 HIV patients a year. "That's a pretty alarming statistic."
Houston's rate of new HIV infections is higher than figures in Dallas and San Antonio but below the rates calculated for New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago.
The local numbers, released Monday on World AIDS Day by the city health department, represent a more accurate way to determine how many people were infected in a given period of time: They are based on a calculation method that caused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August to revise the nation's 2006 infections to 56,300 - about 40 percent higher than the earlier estimate. Previous CDC measurements suggested about 40,000 new cases every year.
The amended figures do not represent an actual increase in the number of new HIV cases.
"The new estimate is based on direct measurement of new HIV infections using a new technology that can distinguish recent from long-standing infections," said Houston health department spokesman Porfirio Villarreal.
There are 44 new infections for every 100,000 people in Harris County, compared with 23 per 100,000 nationwide. In Harris County, black people account for more than half of those new cases for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
There are more than 1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States and almost 18,000 have been diagnosed in Harris County, according to the Houston Department of Health and Human Services. As many as 6,000 other county residents are living with the virus and do not know it.
Using the new method, the Houston health department is still calculating the number of Harris County residents who were infected in 2007, Villarreal said.
The number of 2006 cases surprised Giordano, also a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and an HIV patient care researcher. "It's good to finally have a number," he said. "You were never sure with the old numbers."
Personal battle
Danny Harris, 46, discussed his decadelong battle with the illness Monday night at the city's candlelight vigil to remember those lost to AIDS. His partner died in 2002.
Harris, who was diagnosed in 1997, marveled that tests can return results in 20 minutes. When he first started testing in 1993, the wait was two weeks.
"Everyone should get tested. I don't care who you are," said Harris, who once took 56 pills a day to treat the illness. He was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS last year, but he now has an undetectable virus and takes just three pills daily.
Blacks and Hispanics are hard-hit in Harris County, accounting for 78 percent of the 2006 cases but are roughly 60 percent of the population.
That's why local health officials have spent the last few years targeting prevention efforts in black and Hispanic communities, Villarreal said.
Testing has become the key weapon against HIV in the Houston area.
Working with community groups and worship centers, the city health department has expanded HIV testing through mobile vans assigned to areas with the highest HIV rates.
With a CDC grant, the city this summer began offering HIV tests to emergency room patients at Ben Taub General Hospital and Memorial Hermann Hospital-The Texas Medical Center, as well as a Legacy Community Health Services location.
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