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Number of people living with HIV increasing locally, statewide

By BY GHENI PLATENBURG - GPLATENDBURG@VICADCOM
Dec. 26, 2011 at 6:26 a.m.

Heather Eganski holds the head of Christalanna Cabrera while Larry Botello inserts a needle into Cabrera's arm at Victoria College. Cabrera and Eganski were two of about 20 people who came to get free testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Heather Eganski is all too familiar with how quickly HIV can spread through and ravage a community.

Because of that familiarity, she recently was tested for human immunodeficiency virus in a free program offered by the Texas Department of State Health Services

Her home county of Chautauqua County, N.Y., made national headlines in 1997 when resident Nushawn Williams, who is HIV positive, admitted to having unprotected sex with up to 300 partners, 47 of whom were from Chautauqua County.

After causing a HIV micro-epidemic in the county, Williams was later convicted of two counts of statutory rape and one count of first degree reckless endangerment for having unprotected sex with a woman who did not know his HIV status.

Although Eganski was not one of Williams' sexual partners, she knew many of the victims and their families.

"A lot of them ignored it," Eganski, 26, said about how some of the victims responded to news about their exposure to the virus. "A lot of them went on to have babies."

Knowing the importance of being tested is what led Eganksi to get tested at the STD screening held at Victoria College.

"You never know," said Eganaksi, a truck driver who said she has only been tested once before.

The event, which was held in support of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, was sponsored by the Victoria chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender group and Haven, Victoria College's gay-straight alliance.

Employees from the Texas Department of State Health Services tested more than 40 people for chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV.

Event organizers hope STD screenings such as this one will help lessen the growing number of people living with HIV.

Statewide, an estimated 68,000 people were living with HIV, compared to an estimated 63,000 in 2009 and 60,000 in 2008, according to health department data.

About 4,200 people were diagnosed with HIV in Texas over the last few years; however, slightly more than 1 in 3 people diagnosed with HIV in Texas between 2003 and 2009 had a late diagnosis, meaning they were diagnosed with AIDS within one year of their first HIV diagnosis, according to the TDSHS.

Meanwhile, the number of HIV-positive patients treated by the Victoria City-County Health Department was 106 in 2010, compared to 100 in 2009 and 94 in 2008, according to data provided by the health department.

Additionally, in 2010, the largest number of HIV-positive patients treated by the health department fell into the categories of male, Hispanic, living in Victoria and between 45 and 64.

"A lot of people think it's not going to happen to them because they have money or they don't do drugs," said Stacey Hull, a licensed vocational nurse and disease intervention specialist with the health department.

Anyone can have HIV and not know it unless they get tested, she said.

"People hide from us like we are the STD police, but we are just out there looking for people who are infected. We are looking to test as many people as possible to prevent the spread of infection," Hull said.

Aside from intravenous drug users and people with multiple sexual partners, gay and bisexual men continue to be the risk group most severely affected by HIV.

Between 2006 and 2009, the number of new infections that occur each year increased among men who have sex with men by 48 percent.

They also account for nearly half of the estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States, about 49 percent of 580,000 total people.

"Let's not give them that statistic. Let's get tested and keep ourselves safe," said Fernando Garcia, vice president of the nonprofit Victoria chapter of the GLBT group. "The gay community at large needs to understand they are at high risk."

In addition to the risk factors, Larry Botello, a disease intervention specialist with TDSHS, discussed prevention and contraception with attendees.

"It's like a carpenter with his tools. You can have a lot of tools, but if you don't know how to use them, it's not going to help any," said Botello, as he discussed the proper use of condoms.

Among those tested during the event was Eganski's girlfriend, Christianna Cabrera.

The testing was a first for Cabrera, 20, a mother of three who admitted to becoming sexually active at the age of 15.

"I'm kind of nervous," said Cabrera, "I just want to get it over with."

Eganski told jokes to her girlfriend of a month as she fanned away tears from her flushed face to help comfort her.

Cabrera said she too has seen the devastation of living with the disease, as her best friend's brother has lived with the disease for years.

"He has it. He knows he has it. He just wants it to run its course," said Cabrera as she described the victim's unwillingness to take medicine for his condition. "It's sad, I feel bad because the guy who gave it to him didn't know."

When asked what she would do if her test results came back positive, Cabrera responded, "I'd have to go on. I'd still live life normally. I would just have a medical condition."

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