Editors' note: Greg Varnum is the Acting Executive Director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.
I've got some national disease infection figures for you based on results of an optional test people in 22 states bothered to take. By the way, I also have another report telling you that only an estimated 10.4% of people between the ages of 18 and 64 bothered to get that test in the year those figures came from. This the introduction to the recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on HIV infections that I would have proposed. Not as compelling as what they went with...but a bit more direct.
Aside from realizing that I have little future in professionally writing research report introductions, I hope you can understand that I have a skeptical perspective on reports like the one recently released by the CDC. Do I think this report is an important and amazing advancement in our understanding of the Modern AIDS Epidemic? Yes. Do I agree with many others that it gives us the most accurate assessment of HIV infections in the USA to date? Yes. Do I believe there is room for improvement and that despite their best efforts, the authors were doomed to underreport some figures? Absolutely.
I commented on how there's a report talking about how many folks actually get tested. One thing that I like about the new report from CDC is that they tried to take those figures into account. They have some sense that certain groups are being tested more than others. However, even that information isn't concrete and faces some of the same basic problems all surveys face. The numbers on test results - which were used to come up with the new HIV infection rates - are rather accurate. However, the formula created to extract what those numbers mean for the wider population are based on other less accurate and more subjective numbers.
Regardless of how much you try to compensate for a variety of factors, anytime you put subjective numbers in - you aren't going to produce totally reliable numbers. In the case of the latest figures from CDC, I believe that the figures on some of the most high-risk populations were underreported.
One example I am familiar with are the figures regarding young people ages 29 and under. When I look at the effects that abstinence-only education is having and consider the alarming comments I hear from young people on safe sex and HIV testing awareness materials - I find it hard to believe we don't have a problem when it comes to getting young people tested. While we can try to make educated predictions on how bad the problem of getting young people tested is, it's hard to know for certain - especially on CDC's underfunded budget.
There are others who agree that these numbers need work, but are afraid that admitting so might be used as ammunition to take funding away from the CDC. In the past I've heard conservatives bring up evolution during debates on school bullying - so this approach from conservatives certainly wouldn't surprise me. As a representative of an organization which receives CDC funding - this is a concern I take seriously. However, if you think reducing the budget of the agency charged with addressing an epidemic they just discovered is larger than they originally thought is a good idea - you probably had it in for CDC to begin with.
I look at all of these figures, even through my skeptical perspective, and can only come to the conclusion that more must be done. Rather than get caught up in a debate about why it has taken this long to get these numbers or what high risk population is high enough to keep their share of a shrinking pie - I think we've got bigger issues to tackle...like getting that whole pie larger.
Because of the way funding for HIV/AIDS is handled, many leaders are left with little choice but the use these numbers to promote the need for their project. The best thing we can do to help these leaders stop this competitive spinning of at least partially inaccurate numbers is to correct the underlying problem. We need to give greater attention and resources to this problem and accept that there is no magic solution. It's a serious problem and it's going to take the efforts of thousands of people and hundreds of organizations and businesses. No one part of the solution is more vital and necessary than another.
There is room for improvement in these statistics and I caution you to take these figures with a grain of salt. In a society that thrives on sound bites and magical solutions to all our problems, we've elevated the accuracy of this report to an unrealistic level. However, something these figures cannot possibly lead you to believe is that the Modern AIDS Epidemic is over. This report, with all of its amazing advancements and even its shortcomings, should serve as yet another wake-up call for a nation, and a movement, which is more comfortable pushing this epidemic further and further into the back of our minds. I hope you'll resist the urge to press snooze.
(About the National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC): Serving youth for over 15 years, the National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC) is the leading social justice organization that advocates for and with young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) in an effort to end discrimination against these youth and to ensure their physical and emotional well-being. For more information about our work, please visit www.nyacyouth.org. )