Monday, August 04, 2008

Supressing the Numbers on HIV

The report released over the weekend from the Centers For Disease Control -- that HIV infection is 40% higher than previously thought, and always has been , and that transmission has risen each year since 1990 -- is both astounding and outrageous. That is true less so because of the numbers themselves and more so because of how long the government sat on the numbers, and why.

Because of better tracking, more advanced testing, more reporting and variety other reasons, we are able to get a clearer picture of the scope of the epidemic in numbers today than in years past. Many AIDS activists have always thought the numbers were vastly under reported, and many of us have debated whether or not infection rates were rising in the 90s. But the contents of this study were known back in the fall of 2007, when it was leaked to the gay press and elsewhere. We were all told the government would soon announce these new estimates.

Why did it take officials almost a year then, when every precious moment counts in fighting a global pandemic? The report wasn't in fact even going to be released on Saturday. Officials were going to wait and unveil it at the Sunday opening of the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City this week, presumably so they could get some fanfare. Some reporters broke the embargo, however, obviously realizing this information needed to be reported as soon as possible.

The CDC is saying that the study had to be peer-reviewed and that officials wanted to get it right and that it takes time. But something like this should have been rushed through the pipeline rapidly. We're talking about information that is critical in both assessing treatment as well as prevention. We are talking about information that could save lives. These numbers, in total, are horrific, among gay and bisexual men as well as African-American men and women in this country, and of course it's a double whammy for gay and bisexual African-American men. Why would government officials drag their feet when this information could be vital in preventing further transmission of HIV and show the continued magnitude of the epidemic so that we could mobilize a more aggressive domestic effort against HIV?

The obvious answer is that they don't want to mobilize, and the people who are affected are expendible: This administration, particularly when it comes to prevention, is all about bowing to religious conservatives and pushing abstinence-only programs. Showing the numbers are much higher would only increase the pressure for science-based, morality-free prevention and would also put more pressure on the administration to fund both treatment and prevention programs in the U.S. with a lot more dollars. Congressman Henry Waxman has been a hero on AIDS and HIV since the 80s, pointing to government negligence. Once again he did not hold his tongue, as the Times article notes:

The delay...has also fueled criticism that the Bush administration, which has earned plaudits for spending tens of billions to fight AIDS in a number of highly affected countries, has not done enough to fight the disease at home.

Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was critical of the administration. “H.I.V. prevention has been underfunded and too often hindered by politics and ideology,” Mr. Waxman said in a statement released Saturday.

He said the administration had reduced domestic spending against H.I.V. “Since fiscal year 2002, when adjusted for inflation, C.D.C.’s prevention budget has actually shrunk by 19 percent. The president has recently requested decreases in funding for H.I.V. prevention at C.D.C.”

Mr. Waxman said he would soon hold hearings on why health officials had had “less and less money to actually get these programs to the communities that need them.”
It's pretty sickening that George Bush last week, once again, got accolades and photo-ops when he signed the AIDS bill, and here he was, once again, playing fuzzy, deadly math.