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"Die Offs" and "Shocking Statistics"

September 8, 2000

When a steady stream of reports of improved health and decreasing death rates started to flood the media in 1996 and 1997, denialists like AZT: Poison by Prescription author John Lauritsen dismissed them as so much smoke and mirrors. In a March 1997 talk he attributed the apparent good news to the "psychological effect" of people with AIDS being "expected to have a Lazarus recovery" and to "the selective reporting of anecdotes."(1) He predicted that this house of cards would soon collapse, declaring, "I expect within the next half year or year we'll see a perfectly hideous crash, a die-off."

But the die-off failed to materialize. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continued to log declines in AIDS deaths in 1997, 1998 and -- tentatively, as reporting may still be incomplete -- 1999.(2, 3)

As it has become indisputable that the drop in AIDS deaths is real, other explanations have been put forth. In her book, What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?, Christine Maggiore suggests that "a more likely explanation for decreased deaths would be the change in the official AIDS definition adopted in 1993, which allows HIV positives with no symptoms or illness to be diagnosed with AIDS. Since 1993, more than half of all newly diagnosed AIDS cases are counted among people who are not sick."

The logic behind this statement is unclear. If, as Maggiore argues, CD4 cell counts do not correlate with health or illness, then the 1993 addition of a CD4 count below 200 as an AIDS-defining condition has qualified some perfectly healthy people for an AIDS diagnosis. But giving otherwise healthy people an AIDS diagnosis would not necessarily affect either the number of people who had AIDS based on the old criteria or their survival prospects. If, as some charge, the drugs actually cause AIDS, it might even increase the number of AIDS deaths by encouraging healthy people to go on toxic regimens.

In her book and on the Web site of Alive and Well AIDS Alternatives, Maggiore makes a second argument: "AIDS deaths began to decline in 1994, two years before the new 'AIDS cocktails' were made available for general use," and so shouldn't be credited with a trend that had already started.(4, 5)

In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. AIDS deaths rose from 45,271 in 1993 to 49,677 in 1994 and 49,992 in 1995. AIDS deaths dropped to 36,930 in 1996, 20,945 in 1997 and 16,432 in 1998, the lowest number since 1986.(3)

A variation on this argument -- that the decline in AIDS deaths began well before the advent of HAART -- was put forth by Celia Farber in the March, 2000 issue of Gear. She quotes David Pasquarelli, of the group that calls itself ACT UP San Francisco, writing that his organization "recently unearthed a 1997 study by San Francisco Health Department director Dr. Mitch Katz which exposes a shocking statistic which would appear to dispel the claim that the cocktails have caused AIDS deaths to plummet. Using stored blood samples and computer analyses, the study, published in the Journal of AIDS and Human Retrovirology, concluded that new HIV-antibody positive diagnoses peaked in 1982 in San Francisco -- two years before AIDS even had a name." She notes that the study estimated new HIV infections in San Francisco at 500 per year from 1987 on, adding that "Katz has since confirmed the group interpreted his data correctly."(6)

The study projected that reduced rates of HIV transmission would lead to fewer AIDS cases a decade later. But in announcing this "shocking" fact Farber never explains why she and Pasquarelli seem to fully accept estimates based on an assumption both have emphatically rejected: that HIV causes AIDS.(7) This also may be the only time ACT UP San Francisco has agreed with Katz, whom it accused of "genocide" in 1997 for studying post-exposure prophylaxis,(8) and more recently branded "a lying AIDS industry clown who pulls bogus HIV increases out of a hat in order to secure funding."(9)

Farber's claim that Katz accepts ACT UP San Francisco's interpretation of his data is mistaken. The key conclusion, that reduced HIV transmission in the 1980s foreshadowed fewer AIDS cases in the 1990s, is stated explicitly in the article and requires no interpretation. Katz firmly disputes the claim that HAART has had no effect.

The numbers of actual and projected AIDS cases -- not mentioned in Farber's article -- appear to back him up. Katz and colleagues, assuming that treatment would only be as effective as AZT monotherapy and adjusting for distortions caused by the 1993 change in the CDC AIDS definition, projected that the drop would level out beginning in 1995 with 1,283 new AIDS cases that year, 1,200 in 1996, 1,122 in 1997 and 1,115 in 1998.(7) But 1995 saw 1,743 AIDS cases, 40 percent above the projection. In 1996, the year protease-based combinations became the standard of care, new cases plunged to 1,178. They kept dropping to 899 in 1997 and 713 in 1998-more than a third below projected levels. "That," says Katz, "is the treatment effect."(10)

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ISSN # 1052-4207

Copyright 2000 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.

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