AIDS: Good news November 20, 2007 4:52 AM
U.N. to Cut Estimate Of AIDS Epidemic
Population With Virus Overstated by Millions
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 20, 2007; Page A01
JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 19 -- The United Nations' top AIDS scientists plan to acknowledge this week that they have long overestimated both the size and the course of the epidemic, which they now believe has been slowing for nearly a decade, according to U.N. documents prepared for the announcement.
AIDS remains a devastating public health crisis in the most heavily affected areas of sub-Saharan Africa. But the far-reaching revisions amount to at least a partial acknowledgment of criticisms long leveled by outside researchers who disputed the U.N. portrayal of an ever-expanding global epidemic.
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The latest estimates, due to be released publicly Tuesday, put the number of annual new HIV infections at 2.5 million, a cut of more than 40 percent from last year's estimate, documents show. The worldwide total of people infected with HIV -- estimated a year ago at nearly 40 million and rising -- now will be reported as 33 million.
Having millions fewer people with a lethal contagious disease is good news. Some researchers, however, contend that persistent overestimates in the widely quoted U.N. reports have long skewed funding decisions and obscured potential lessons about how to slow the spread of HIV. Critics have also said that U.N. officials overstated the extent of the epidemic to help gather political and financial support for combating AIDS.
"There was a tendency toward alarmism, and that fit perhaps a certain fundraising agenda," said Helen Epstein, author of "The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS." "I hope these new numbers will help refocus the response in a more pragmatic way."
Annemarie Hou, spokeswoman for the U.N. AIDS agency, speaking from Geneva, declined to comment on the grounds that the report had not been released publicly. In documents obtained by The Washington Post, U.N. officials say the revisions stemmed mainly from better measurements rather than fundamental shifts in the epidemic. They also say they are continually seeking to improve their tracking of AIDS with the latest available tools.
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