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AIDS Activists Riled by CDC Refusal to Release Infection Data
  By John Lauerman
Dec. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Annual U.S. HIV infections may be as much as 50 percent higher than the government has estimated since 2001, say AIDS activists who complain health officials aren't releasing new figures in a timely manner.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an e-mailed statement yesterday it anticipates releasing the final results no sooner than early 2008. AIDS advocates and researchers said they've been waiting two years for the new figures, which are needed to set spending priorities.
The new estimate, based on 2005 data, may be as high as 60,000 annual infections, compared with the 2001 estimate of about 40,000, said Walt Senterfitt, a former CDC adviser. The estimate is based on new technical and statistical methods, and any changes in those methods during the review process may alter the final figures, said Kevin Fenton, director of CDC's national AIDS center, in the statement.
``CDC is strongly committed to providing an accurate, timely picture of the domestic HIV epidemic, and we are moving as quickly as possible to complete, confirm, and release these important new estimates,'' Fenton said.
In 2001, CDC set a much-publicized goal of cutting new HIV infections in half by 2005.
The most recent HIV data should have been available by now, said Rebecca Haag, executive director of AIDS Action, a Washington-based advocacy group, in a telephone interview yesterday. The delay suggests the government is trying to cover up its failures in limiting spread of the disease, she said.
Worldwide Figures Lower
Federal health officials may not want to release the higher infection rate just weeks after the United Nations cut their estimate of the global number of people infected with HIV by about 16 percent to 33.2 million, Haag said. CDC sent a ``Dear Colleague'' letter to advocacy groups urging them not to discuss the new figures until their formal release, she said.
``They wanted to manage the message,'' she said. ``There's been an attempt to manage what they know is not good news.''
The administration has been charged with trying to spin public health data before. The White House said last month that the president's science adviser had edited Senate testimony from CDC Director Julie Gerberding on the health impact of global warming.
Other AIDS activists, including Senterfitt, who is chairman of the New York-based Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, David Munar, vice chairman of the National Association of People with AIDS, and Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles, have also called for the data to be released as soon as possible.
Current Estimate
Senterfitt and other HIV advocates said that CDC officials have referred to higher estimates of HIV infection in meetings and conferences. An article in the Journal of Medical Virology cited a figure of about 55,000 new annual infections. That article was based on a speech by a CDC official who requested that it be corrected, said Jennifer Ruth, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based government agency.
The current estimate of 40,000, in use since 2001, is ``back-of-the-envelope,'' said Senterfitt.
New HIV infections are difficult to count because people with the virus can remain symptom-free for years. CDC used a new test that allows scientists to estimate how long people have been infected when they are found to be HIV-positive, and new statistical methods to develop the rates now under review.
Ensuring Accuracy
A thorough inspection will help ensure the accuracy of the new figures, and give public health officials a better idea of how to fight the epidemic, said David Holtgrave, a Johns Hopkins University HIV epidemiologist.
``I, too, wish the new incidence numbers were available some time ago,'' he said yesterday in a telephone interview. ``Given that they've been submitted for peer review, I think you'll get a better product if people go through the paper and look at methods and data.''
Haag, though, said CDC has the skill to do that kind of review internally. The agency frequently publishes disease figures without outside review or journal publication, such as a recent estimate that showed rising rates of other sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, she said.
Policies advocated by President George W. Bush are largely responsible for the failure to cut HIV infection rates, activists said.
The president has funneled money toward religious health groups and others advocating abstinence from sex until marriage, and away from condoms, clean needles for injection drug users, and explicit education in how to avoid HIV while having sex, said Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
`Damage Control'
``I see it as damage control,'' he said. ``The administration has been promoting policies that are contributing to an increase in the number of infections in this country, it's as simple as that.''
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the administration supports the CDC time table.
``We strongly support CDC's efforts to get the best data on HIV infections in order to better understand the spread of the disease and to ensure that efforts to combat the disease are best targeted,'' Johndroe said. ``It's critically important to get the data right.''
HIV advocates have been looking for the new data since 2005, believing they show the need for stronger HIV prevention measures, Munar said in a Nov. 30 telephone interview. A number of activists are planning to protest the timing of the release at CDC's HIV Prevention Conference that begins Monday in Atlanta.
``Something is wrong,'' Munar said. ``We're either not investing enough in prevention, not investing in the right strategies, or other factors are sending us in the wrong direction.''
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