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Uganda will be a desert in two year – we were told 15 years ago.
"At least 30 percent of the entire adult population of Central Africa is infected with the AIDS virus," a doctor tells a U.S. newspaper. A high Ugandan official says that within two years his nation will "be a desert." ABC News Nightline declares that within 12 years "50 million Africans may have died of AIDS."
Actually, those statements and predictions were all made between 1986 and 1988. Yet since 1985, Central Africa’s population has increased over 70 percent while Uganda’s has nearly doubled. Japan, conversely, has close to no AIDS cases yet its population growth has essentially stopped.
According to the UN’s latest estimate, Nightline’s predicted 50 million dead Africans by the year 2000 was actually 20 million dead worldwide by the end of last year.
AIDS is a horrible disease. But let’s be sensible about the scope of the problem. I’ve been writing about the exaggeration of the AIDS epidemic since 1987, so I know when the crying of "Wolf!" will stop. Never. Indeed, at the just-concluded 15th annual UN AIDS conference in Bangkok, the will o’ the wisp wolves again were everywhere and the media questioned nothing.
For example, there was pious Peter Piot, executive director of the UN AIDS program, bemoaning that "Projections NOW suggest that some countries in sub-Saharan African will face economic collapse unless they bring their epidemics under control." (Emphasis added.) He should know; he’s been using those exact words for at least five years.
Nor is there any reason to accept that 20-million-dead figure, nor that almost five million new people became infected last year or that almost three million died of AIDS.
The epidemic always has and always will refuse to live up to the official predictions for one simple reason: The louder the Klaxon sounds, the more public and private contributions pour in. The UN AIDS program doesn’t even care if it contradicts other UN branches – where do you think I got those population increase numbers?
The Boston Globe reported in June that two U.S. AIDS officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they think global HIV numbers may be pumped up by 50 percent. Berkeley epidemiologist Dr. James Chin puts the inflation range at 25 percent to 40 percent.
Chin became responsible for California’s AIDS surveillance program when the disease was detected in 1981. In 1987, he became chief of the UN’s Surveillance, Forecasting, and Impact Assessment unit of the Global Program on AIDS, where he quickly saw the agency was using an estimated range of worldwide cases that was far too high. Ultimately, the UN agreed with Chin’s assessment and he stayed on another five years.
In the beginning, he says, some countries would understate their figures for fear of becoming pariahs and losing tourism. "But the pendulum swung so that it was in vogue to claim high numbers" in order to get more attention and more money.
The problem is that AIDS and HIV victims don’t walk through turnstiles to be counted. People conduct surveys and then somebody extrapolates from them. That’s where the hanky-panky occurs.
"They don’t falsify per se," Chin told me, but "as an epidemiologist I look at these numbers and how they’re derived. Every step of the way there is a range and you can choose the low end or the high end. Almost consistently the high end was chosen."
The Globe reported that "Several years ago, UNAIDS estimated that up to 60 percent of the Angolan military was HIV positive," but the head of the US Department of Defense’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Program told the paper that the figure was "nowhere near close to that. It’s 6 to 7 percent. They based the earlier number on a small sample, which included people outside the military, and extrapolated that to the military as a whole."
As extrapolations go from a carefully chosen area, namely those known to have high infection rates, to an entire country the overestimates just keep multiplying. That’s just what the UN wants. "There are those who believe the UN line, and they see me as Public Enemy Number One," he says. "And then there are those who know what’s going on and keep up the charade because they don’t want to lose the money and attention."
"What they don’t seem to realize," he says, "is that this causes serious misallocations between AIDS and other diseases and even between the needs of AIDS programs in different countries."
As such, even the most honest AIDS researchers are tempted to exaggerate because everyone else does. An AIDS health official in a southern African country whom I’ve known for 15 years told me he found this out the hard when approached with potential funding by one of the largest private AIDS donors, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. But first, they wanted a survey of the problem. Rather than bloating the figures, he blew it and told the truth. Kaiser huffed and took its funds elsewhere.
Is this any way to combat an epidemic?
Naturally, as with everything else, global AIDS is all America’s fault. Never mind that with less than a third of the world’s GDP, the U.S. government is spending twice as much on the problem this year as the rest of the planet combined. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan ripped the U.S. for not taking AIDS as serious as worldwide terrorism. Activists like actor Richard Gere, associated with the Kaiser Foundation, insist that "The $200-300 billion spent in Iraq probably could have eradicated this illness," as if you can just put money into one slot of a machine and watch a cure drop out of another.
Still, while AIDS may be grossly exaggerated and Richard Gere utterly obnoxious, it is a terrible disease affecting all countries. That’s why we must know precisely where to spend our money. Unfortunately, neither the U.N. nor its staunch media allies are about to tell us.