HIV Numbers Cloud Condom Sense

Condom sense: Ignore the two charts that appeared this week on the Metro page of The Dallas Morning News—one showing a sharply sloping line tracking a boom in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Dallas County, another a graph tracking a decrease in new cases. The charts accompanied a story that suggested the data support a call by the two Democratic members of the commissioners court to reverse a 13-year rule that prohibits county health workers from distributing condoms in high-risk neighborhoods.

What do the numbers mean anyway? More county residents are HIV-infected, so lift the ban? New cases are down, so we don't need to lift the ban? Listen, if you're Buzz's sort of person, politically speaking, you already know that county health workers who perform HIV tests and education programs in neighborhoods with high infection rates should be handing out condoms. If you're the sort who thinks freely available condoms encourage "immoral" behavior—which Buzz thinks is like arguing that seatbelts cause traffic accidents—then the numbers are just so much smoke.

Republican County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, who voted for the original ban in 1995, certainly wasn't persuaded that the charts were clear-cut. Condoms purchased through federal grants are already available through community organizations, he points out, and if the latest batch of numbers argue that the county needs to reassess its HIV programs, then it should look at them in full, check out what other counties are doing and adopt whatever the "best practices" are. He hasn't made up his mind on the county's ban yet.

We suppose we should be glad that the numbers have people talking about the issue again, but it does seem odd that in 2008 the county is still dithering over the moral righteousness of condom distribution, as though we haven't already heard tons of evidence that abstinence education doesn't work too well.

Zach Thompson, director of the county Department of Health and Human Services, told Buzz that he's fielded a lot of calls and e-mails asking about the numbers, but he'd rather talk about people—those with HIV who need county services. They suffer. They cost the county money. "We have to personalize that these people are going to need help...We have to look at this from an overall health [perspective] in the community," he says, echoing Cantrell. "Condom distribution is not a silver bullet. The condom distribution is not a panacea. The condom distribution is an opportunity to look at the total outreach in the community."

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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams