Health & Environment
This chart shows the increase in the number of HIV/ AIDS cases throughout the state from 2005 to 2011. (Texas Department of State Health Services)
Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding (in green) from cultured lymphocyte. This image has been colored to highlight important features. Multiple round bumps on cell surface represent sites of assembly and budding of virions. (C. Goldsmith/ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
The El Paso Department of Public Health offices, located at 5115 El Paso Dr. (Alberto Tomas Halpern/ Newspaper Tree)
Halfway through 2013, the number of reported cases of syphilis and HIV in El Paso have exceeded the number of cases reported throughout all of 2012, according to City of El Paso Health Director Robert Resendes.
“Unfortunately yes, we’re up over 50 percent. We have syphilis in the neighborhood,” Resendes said this week.
According to figures from his department, the number of syphilis cases reported from January through May 2013 was 62. That figure is up from the 40 cases reported last year. HIV infection cases are also up, with 46 cases reported as of May, up from the 43 cases that were reported throughout 2012.
The two diseases, Resendes said, tend to go hand-in-hand, as they are transmitted through similar practices: unprotected sex.
“There are some public health challenges for El Paso,” he said, explaining that there is a, “very transient community, a big college with students who are [sexually] active, a lot of soldiers, and a lot of border crossers every day.” El Paso’s proximity to an international border puts residents at a higher risk of spreading and catching diseases of any kind, Resendes said. He said that’s the case worldwide where countries share borders and movement between those borders is relatively fluid.
According to Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), the state has seen a slight decrease in syphilis in 2013.
“There was a fairly large increase last year, 37 percent,” Van Deusen said of syphilis cases from 2011 to 2012 throughout Texas.
With regard to El Paso’s increase in syphilis cases, Van Deusen said, “The raw number of cases isn’t huge, but there has been an increase and that causes a public health concern.”
According to DSHS data, as of 2011, nearly 70,000 people in Texas are known to have HIV, with an additional 17,000 living with HIV, but unaware of their medical status.
“The number of people known to have HIV increased by 34 percent from 2005 to 2011 [in Texas],” DSHS’ states in its HIV/STD program.
DSHS notes that African Americans living in Texas are disproportionately affected by HIV, representing 39 percent of people living with the infection, compared to Whites representing 32 percent, and Hispanics representing 28 percent.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be treated more effectively, DSHS says, if detected as early as possible: “HIV infection can take from five to ten years to progress to AIDS unless a person receives treatment. Many HIV-infected people do not learn they have HIV until they develop AIDS symptoms.”
According to data from the city’s health department, eleven cases of AIDS have been reported in El Paso so far this year. Five cases were reported last year.
Resendes also said that chlamydia, another sexually transmitted disease (STD), has seen a slight increase in El Paso. “Chlamydia is not up 50 percent, but it is significant,” he said. The total number of chlamydia cases reported in 2012 was 2267. As of May 2013, that figure has grown to 2967 cases.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” Resendes said, regarding the rise in STDs in El Paso. “People could be less careful in sex practices. It’s tough to enumerate. We could be getting better reporting.”
Van Deusen said that for HIV in particular, “An increase in cases doesn’t mean more infection.” Similar to Resendes, Van Deusen said better reporting may have led to the increase in known cases, but that it would be impossible to say there are more infections.
The El Paso City Council this week accepted $19,132 from DSHS specifically to help cover costs associated with testing and treating syphilis and HIV, a move that pleased Resendes.
“The state of Texas graciously gave us an extra 19 grand to do more testing. We’ve done some of that already,” he said.
DSHS says that someone is more likely to contract HIV if they already have syphilis. “There is a two to five fold increase risk of HIV when syphilis is already present. Syphilis will increase the HIV viral load with someone already infected. It certainly is a concern,” Van Deusen said.
“Our advice is, as always, don’t have unprotected sex. Use condoms if you’re going to have sex. That will certainly help protect. And get tested. We recommend routine testing for HIV and get tested for other STDs as well. It’s not a high number of cases in El Paso compared to the state, but people need to be aware of it.”
Resendes added that as the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, begins to take shape, consortiums of medical institutions will be created and will be better equipped to understand public health trends and deal with public health threats. The health care law, he said, requires medical institutions to share patient data in a way that will improve tracking communicable diseases.
Resendes, a Boston native, recently began working for the city as the health director. He has a long career in public health, working in Utah and Arizona prior to moving to Texas.
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