Cooking AIDS Data

The news that U.N. estimates of AIDS-affected persons have been grossly over-stated is dangerous because it calls into question other assessments and puts at risk continuing support to curb the disease. Those who face exposure to diseases, especially the diseases of poverty, can easily be harmed by skepticism that results in less funding for vaccinations, medicines and health services.

First reports (as the front page story in yesterday’s Washington Post) said the overstatement wasn’t the result of inaccurate record keeping, inadequate reporting or poor surveys. According to early reports it was willful mis-statement. After second thought, UN officials began to refute this claim, but the impression was already made, the damage done.

Apart from questions of ethical behavior, this is a bad idea. Inflated figures undermine the credibility of all UN health figures. To the general public (who don’t distinguish between disease-specific programs) and donors of substance, intentional deception undermines support period. Anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of transparency and integrity in donor relations hasn’t been paying attention the least several years.

Inflated figures and over-stated claims about the menace of HIV/AIDS were hardly necessary anyway. By any measure the toll of this disease is horrific. To pump it with hyperbole is simply short-sighted. Whatever was gained can easily be lost when people lose confidence in reporting agencies. And loss of support will appear not as statistical corrections on sheets of paper. It will appear as loss of lives.

The urgency of attacking HIV/AIDS that is obvious today wasn’t so obvious a few years ago. Pumping the figures and exaggerating the progress of the disease might have seemed necessary in the past to step up response but in hindsight it will seem very unwise if it results in less support, fewer advocates for funding, research, treatment and staff, or for governments who can say, “You fooled us once, who’s to say you’re telling the truth now?”

Because fewer individuals actually have the disease is no reason to ease up on aggressive prevention, treatment and research. But the integrity of UNAIDS is certainly blemished and it will deserve the critical and skeptical eyes of those in the scientific, medical and civic communities in the future to assure the integrity of reporting and accuracy of statistics. All of us, but most especially those with this terrible disease, should expect nothing less.

Join the conversation!

Post a reply in the form below.

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image