Myth 3: Researchers have exaggerated the problem


A FEW of the earliest 'worst-case' predictions about the extent of the Aids epidemic - going back to the early Eighties - did exaggerate the spread of the virus. However, since 1988, scientific advisers to the Government have consistently given accurate advice on the rise of Aids.

Newspapers that have fostered the belief that Aids has been exaggerated out of all proportion to the risk often quote predictions made at a time when widespread screening for HIV had not even started.

Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, said on The Frost Programme earlier this month that the Royal College of Nursing predicted in 1985 that there would be one million Aids victims by 1991 - which turned out to be a gross overestimate.

However, few Aids researchers accepted such estimates at the time. Britain, for instance, only introduced the blood test for HIV in the autumn of 1985 and there was next to no information about the prevalence of the virus in the population.

It was only in 1988, three years after HIV testing had begun, that a more accurate picture began to emerge of how the Aids problem would grow. In March of that year, the Government set up the Cox Committee to assess the possible course of the epidemic over the next two to five years.

The committee's conclusions were couched in uncertainties, which were often downplayed when newspapers came to reporting the figures. The first sentence of the conclusions stated that there was 'considerable uncertainty' due partly to the 'absence or limitations of relevant data'.

Despite such limitations, the scientists on the committee estimated that there were between 2,000 and 5,500 people in Britain infected with HIV through heterosexual contact. With hindsight, their lower figure was probably closer to the mark, but it can hardly be said that the scientists were wildly exaggerating the problem.

Another attempt to evaluate the extent of the future Aids epidemic came in 1990 with another government committee, this time chaired by Professor Nick Day, head of the Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge.

Again, estimates of the spread of HIV among heterosexuals were couched in caveats that often got lost in newspaper reports: 'There is great uncertainty in predictions of future cases due to transmission of HIV through heterosexual contact and injecting drug use,' the committee emphasised. 'This uncertainty would be much reduced if reliable estimates of HIV prevalence in different sections of the population were available.'

At the time the report was being prepared, anonymous screening of the heterosexual population had still not begun. This was crucial to determining the extent to which HIV had seeped out into the wider population. Without the data from such a screening programme, scientists were working very much in the dark and yet were still expected to come up with accurate predictions.

The first Day report nevertheless gave a planning projection for cases of Aids - set midway between an upper and lower estimate - that has since proved remarkably accurate. In no way can these Aids researchers be accused of exaggerating.

Anne Johnson, a member of the Day committee and lecturer at University College and Middlesex School of Medicine, has highlighted how difficult it is to predict the spread of HIV among heterosexuals: 'It is erroneous to arrive at conclusions in the early Nineties about the eventual prevalence of HIV, as it would have been to expect 15th-century epidemiologists in the decade after the introduction

of syphilis to predict its devastating effect throughout Europe in subsequent centuries.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living