US has 'under-estimated spread of HIV by 40 per cent'

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The Independent US

The United States has been under-estimating the spread of HIV by more than 40 per cent per year for the past decade, according to newly-published research indicating that the domestic AIDS epidemic may be far more widespread than previously thought.

A new testing technique has revealed that roughly 56,300 Americans were infected by the virus in 2006, the last year for which data is available. That’s a significant increase from the 40,000 cited as standard by politicians and medical experts for the past fifteen years.

The results of a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Government body in charge of tracking AIDS in the US, suggest that more than 1,325,000 more people may now be living with HIV in America. Previous estimates had always put the figure closer to one million

Health officials said the revised figures reflect the recent development of better blood tests combined with new statistical methods, rather than any actual worsening in the epidemic. But they are likely to refocus attention on the scale of the problem in America’s own backyard.

Despite being highly critical of prevention efforts in many other countries, the White House has frozen spending on domestic HIV prevention for the past seven years. Dr Julie Gerberding, the CDC director, said the findings, in a peer-reviewed study, suggested that current policies are “unacceptable.”

The report was unveiled at the international AIDS conference in Mexico City this weekend. It shows that the brunt of the epidemic is being borne by gay men, who account for 53 percent of new infections. There have been small declines among heterosexuals and injectable drug users.

Ethnic minorities are also revealed to be facing an increased risk of HIV: infection rates for blacks are seven times higher than for whites (83.7 per 100,000, as opposed to 11.5 per 100,000), while Hispanics (29.3 per 100,000) are also disproportionately affected.

“The figures are a scathing indictment of how profoundly US prevention efforts have failed,” Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare foundation, told reporters. “There is absolutely no good news here. Without an accurate picture of the epidemic, vastly underestimated for the last 10 years, we have missed countless opportunities to intervene with effective public health strategies.”

The release of the CDC report at the weekend has been the subject of significant controversy in the medical community. Government researchers first knew of its findings since October, but refused to publish them until they were peer reviewed.

That move that prompted the UK medical journal The Lancet to accuse the Bush administration of supressing inconvenient information. In a highly-critical editorial, the journal declared: “US efforts to prevent HIV have failed dismally.”

Although the CDC had attempted to stage-manage the report’s release at the weekend, its policy was thrown into chaos on Saturday after US journalists broke an embargo to report on its findings 24 hours earlier than was previously planned.

After for years being criticised for pursuing an apparently outdated domestoc policy on AIDS, which focused on promoting abstemious behaviour rather than safe sex, President Bush this week signaled the adoption of a more enlightened approach to tackling the epidemic.

In addition to announcing plans to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act, which has for years prevented foreigners infected with HIV from entering the country, he signed a $48 billion AIDS prevention bill, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a move warmly praised by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the opening of the Mexico conference.

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