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CDC Unveils Higher Rate of Annual HIV Infections

By Alan McCord and Paul Dalton

September 2008

New data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a substantially higher HIV infection rate occurring each year in the US. The announcement, through a special HIV issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, coincided with the start of the 2008 International AIDS Conference.

According to the CDC, the new estimate for new HIV infections in 2006 is 56,300 -- 40% higher than the previous estimate of 40,000. This resulted from the CDC's development of new methodology that they claim more accurately calculates the yearly estimate. This is due to better identifigying recent and longstanding infections, as well as improved mathematical modeling.

Although the 40% increase represents a substantially higher number over previous years, the CDC claims that the new figure does not represent an actual increase in new infections. The CDC states that the annual infection rate has remained fairly steady over the past decade, though underreported due to a lack of accurate statistical methodologies.

The report went on to state that men who have sex with men (MSM) and African Americans continue to bear the burden of new infections. Just over half of new infections occur in MSM, while African Americans account for 45% of new infections though they comprise 13% of the population.

In an interview, CDC's Kevin Fenton took pains to argue that this is simply a matter of new counting methods, not a real increase in infections. When asked what could be done to stem the stubbornly high rates of new infections, Fenton repeated the mantra of "fewer sexual partners, abstinence and expanded testing."

The lack of innovative thinking by the CDC in the face of these new numbers -- which show a larger number of HIV infections however you frame it -- is disappointing to say the least. Even if one accepts that this recalculation doesn't represent an actual increase in infections, it shows that current prevention programs are highly inadequate.

Adding to the story is the long delay between first reports of these numbers and the CDC making them public. Project Inform first heard that the numbers were being revised up to months ago, yet the information was withheld until the 2008 International AIDS Conference.

These figures are yet another wake-up call for community activists and the federal government to plan and implement a national strategy to effectively end the transmission of HIV in the US. Project Inform continues to work in coalition with organizations and individuals from the community, government and industry to implement the National AIDS Strategy. We also continue to provide leadership around exploring the value of interventions such as PrEP and microbicides.

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