Deception & Misdirection

Lies, damned lies, and government statistics (cont’d): HIV and the CDC

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and policy.]

From fake statistics such as the “poverty” rate, which bureaucrats set at whatever level they want, to categories such as “endangered species” that aren’t species, to “races” of mankind that exist only in the imagination, to totally bogus pretend-calculations such as the “social cost of carbon” that is used to justify countless destructive regulations, government bureaucrats use techniques of deception to increase their own power and promote the causes they believe in. Left-wing politicians love their work, mainstream/conservative politicians are generally clueless about what they do, extremist pseudo-intellectuals on college campuses provide them with fake rationales, and members of the out-of-the-mainstream media swallow their fakery hook, line, and sinker and pass it along unedited to the American people.

Just last week, Americans saw an example that appeared in virtually every major news outlet in the country. Among the participants were reporters for such outlets as the New York Times and the Washington Post–reporters who are too dumb to use simple math and who lack the basic ethics to check out the stories they report.  I’m referring to the stories promoting the absurd claim that Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program, designed for schoolchildren and in effect for four years, had caused a 43% drop over the past 10 years in obesity among children age 2-5.  Despite the fact that the story was preposterous on its face and unsupported by any evidence, the pro-Obama media, and even supposedly contrarian outlets like Fox News, bought into the fairy tale. And why not? As far as most of the media are concerned, a little absurdity is OK if it helps justify the comical Michelle Obama effort, which includes school lunch regulations mandating roughly the same calorie count for 90-pound nerdy-girls and 210-pound football players. (These are federal regulations, mind you–in a country where education is supposed to be controlled by parents and voters at the state and, ideally, local level.)

One response by hungry students: the video “We Are Hungry,”  set to the tune of the hit song “We Are Young,”  with the lyric “Tonight, we are hungry / Set the policy on fire, it can burn brighter than the sun.”

I’ll have more on the 43% hoax in a later column. This week, let’s take a short trip down memory lane with the source of the hoax, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency, known as the CDC, was created to fight malaria, mainly in the South. (Ever wonder why it’s headquartered in Atlanta? Now you know.) Later, its mission was expanded to include all communicable diseases, i.e., diseases involving pathogens (harmful bacteria, viruses, rickettsiae, chlamydiae, and fungi) that pass from on person to another.

In a process known as “mission creep,”  CDC over time further expanded its role to include efforts to modify behaviors that CDC bureaucrats don’t like. To justify this expansion of power and grab for money and personnel, the agency began to pretend that obesity is a disease and that the CDC has legitimate jurisdiction on such topics as the Second Amendment. (Remember how NASA, the spaceflight agency, abandoned the Americans-in-space program and retooled itself as a government department that promotes Global Warming theory, does outreach to the Muslim world by emphasizing the contributions of 10th Century Muslim scientists, and subsidizes the space ventures of the President’s campaign supporters? What happened with the CRC is like that.)

But I digress. Getting back to memory lane: I first became aware of the CDC’s chicanery more than 20 years ago, when I was doing an article on the rate of HIV infection.  I checked out various news articles on the CDC’s calculation of how many people in the U.S. had been exposed to the virus, and I found a bizarre pattern: The number of such individuals was the same, year after year after year.

For the number to be stable, the number of people exposed to HIV would have to equal the number who died (allowing for minor shifts due to immigration and emigration). This would have to happen between one year and the next, and between that year and the following year, and so on. It would have to happen over and over again.

That doesn’t happen in real life. The stock market goes up and down in a pattern that resembles the walk of a drunken man, the climate changes over the years as it has for eons, and the distance between the earth and the moon differs from one year to the next. The number of people with HIV should have been going up or going down, but the CDC’s estimate stayed at a nice, easily digestible number (1 to 1.5 million, with an occasional wobble one way or the other).

Of course, I understand that the CDC estimate was just a guesstimate. Nobody knew much about the epidemiological patterns of HIV, at least not in the early years. What’s striking, though, is that, except for a few alarmists, almost everyone accepted the CDC figure as if it had a hard, scientific basis… and that people continued to believe it even as the years wore on and its unchanging nature should have set off alarms.

This is an example of what happens when bureaucrats are required to make an estimate or a projection for which they have insufficient data. This is what happens all the time in the federal government in Washington and, in this case, Atlanta.

I’ll leave you with a series of excerpts from articles in 1986-1993 that show the progression, or non-progression, of the CDC estimate of HIV infection. I’ve underlined the numbers.

As you can see, eventually some people did catch on to the problem, and the response, noted in a 1993 article excerpted below, was this: “The estimate is constantly updated, but the reason the 1 million figure has not changed over the years is that the CDC statisticians think that the number of new infections is roughly equal to the number of AIDS deaths.”

Yeah, right.


Associated Press

July 27, 1986

AIDS: Crisis on a Troubled Continent

By PAUL RAEBURN, AP Science Editor

The CDC estimates 1 million Americans have been exposed to AIDS . . .


The Washington Post

December 27, 1986

The Military Statistics

By Philip J. Hilts

Neither CDC nor military statistics, it should be noted, are complete enough to produce reliable estimates for AIDS infection in the population as a whole. But the total is roughly estimated to be at least 1 million and perhaps more than 2 million.


The Washington Post

February 25, 1987

Officials Weigh Wider AIDS Testing;

D.C. Believed Among 5 Jurisdictions With Highest Infection Rates

By Sandra G. Boodman, Susan Okie, Washington Post Staff Writer

Dr. James Curran, director of the AIDS program for CDC’s center for infectious diseases, estimated that, of the 1.5 million Americans believed to be infected with the AIDS virus, men total 1,386,750, or 1 out of every 80 men, and women totaled 113,250, or one out of every 1,000 women — most in the age range of 30 to 39. He said CDC has estimated infection in this country at 50 times the number of reported AIDS cases.


The Associated Press

March 5, 1987

AIDS Researchers Planning Anonymous Blood Tests To Track Virus Spread

CDC estimates that 1 million to 1.5 million Americans have been infected with the AIDS virus, and of that total, 20 to 30 percent will develop AIDS by the end of 1991.


The Associated Press

June 27, 1987

Plan for Widespread AIDS Testing Sent to Governor

The CDC estimates that 1 million to 1.5 million Americans have been infected with the AIDS virus, and of that total, 20 to 30 percent will develop AIDS by the end of 1991.


St. Petersburg Times

February 15, 1988

State official to lead free seminar on AIDS


Those numbers and the CDC’s projections worry Joe Lemieux, a Spring Hill activist who helped organize the seminar. “I think based on the projections of the CDC and other organizations, we have one million to one-and-a-half million people affected,” Lemieux said. “We’re sitting on a time bomb.”


The Associated Press

August 20, 1988, Saturday, PM cycle

Federal Agency Disputes AIDS Estimates By Think Tank

By PAUL RECER, AP Science Writer

The Centers for Disease Control disputes a study by the Hudson Institute that the number of Americans infected with the deadly AIDS virus is actually twice the official estimate.

In a study released Friday, the Hudson Institute said that up to 3 million Americans are infected by the AIDS virus, an estimate that is far above the calculation by CDC, the primary federal agency monitoring the spread of AIDS.

Kevin R. Hopkins, a Hudson mathematician, said his study uses “realistic” assumptions not used by the CDC and, as a result, his estimate is closer to the true number of Americans infected by the human immunodeficiency virus which causes AIDS.

“The actual number of people carrying the HIV virus in the United States (at the end of 1987) was not the 900,000 to 1.4 million the official sources estimate, but probably more than twice that number,” the Hudson report said.

“There were between 2 and 3 million people infected with the AIDS virus, with the most likely total of infections probably close to 2.4 million,” the report said.

Dr. Timothy Dondero, chief of a CDC branch studying the spread of AIDS, quickly disputed the claim, however.

. . . The Hudson study estimates that of the 850,000 to 1.4 million heterosexuals infected with the HIV virus, between 200,000 and 500,000 are those who do not use drugs.

“There are vastly more heterosexuals infected today,” said Hopkins. “A breakout into the non-monogamous population is unavoidable.”


St. Petersburg Times (Florida)

September 20, 1988

AIDS AND SUICIDE // Despair often overcomes living with terminal condition


The CDC estimates that as many as 1.5-million people are infected with the virus, and that the number of AIDS cases likely will top 365,000 by the end of 1992.


The Boston Globe

February 9, 1989

Panel urges AIDS tests for all newborns

By Judy Foreman, Globe Staff

 Though the CDC estimates that about 1 million Americans are infected with HIV, the NRC panel believes the true figure could be anywhere between 500,000 and 2 million.


Medical World News

July 24, 1989

The epidemic: ‘crack’ use tops U.S. risk list; Fifth International Conference on AIDS

By Patricia Thomas

Throughout it all, this year’s AIDS meeting sent a clear message to primary care physicians: If HIV-infected patients aren’t in your practice yet, they soon will be.

Sheer numbers are one reason: 97,193 U.S. AIDS cases had been reported as of May 31. CDC epidemiologists estimate that 1.2 million Americans are infected with HIV and all or most will, in time, become symptomatic. Furthermore, those figures may substantially underestimate the real incidence.


AIDS Alert

October 1, 1989

Reported AIDS cases exceed 100,000, but may be higher.

The estimated number of AIDS cases is merely one indication of the larger epidemic of HIV infection, the CDC reports. There are an estimated one million or more people infected with HIV in the United States.


Management Review

February 1, 1990

Developing & implementing a policy on AIDS

By John Bradley

The actual number of cases of AIDS reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) through October 1989 was 112,241. The CDC has estimated that 1 million to 1.5 million people in the United States are currently infected with HIV.


The Associated Press

February 6, 1990

New Cases Among Gays Below Projections; Not So for IV Drug Users

By DEBORAH MESCE, Associated Press Writer

The federal Centers for Disease Control, which tracks reported AIDS cases, is reassessing its projections. Last month, the agency said its estimates of the potential number of AIDS cases, ranging from 1 million to 1.5 million, may be too high.

The CDC now believes the number to be in the range of 700,000 to 1.4 million, according to an HHS source . . .


AIDS Alert

June 1, 1990

Researchers debate future of AIDS epidemic.

While some suspect that public health officials have overestimated the number of people infected with HIV, others say it is far too soon to say with any certainty when the epidemic will peak and when the number of AIDS cases will begin to decline

Based on Farr’s law, Bregman and his colleague, Alexander Langmuir, MD, MPH, of the department of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, predict that the epidemic will reach a low endemic level before the year 2000, meaning it will no longer be considered an epidemic. Instead, it will be regarded as a normal health problem in our society, Bregman told AIDS Alert. The total accumulated number of AIDS cases will be about 200,000.

That prediction vastly contradicts the CDC’s estimate that between 650,000 and 1.4 million people in the United States are infected with HIV, according to Mitchell Gail, MD, PhD, chief of epidemiologic methods at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, and Ron Brookmeyer, PhD, of the department of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Baltimore.


[Press release]

November 29, 1990


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) last year revised its national AIDS projections, estimating that the total number of AIDS cases — since the epidemic began in the early 1980s — would total more than 400,000 by 1993.  It is estimated that one million people nationwide, including 14,000 in Washington state, are infected with HIV.


AIDS Alert

March 1, 1991

AIDS epidemic rapidly growing and changing; Common Sense About AIDS

The CDC estimates that about 750,000 people in the United States were infected with AIDS at the beginning of 1986, and that about one million Americans are currently infected with HIV.


St. Petersburg Times (Florida)

April 24, 1991

Purpose of museum needs to be spelled out

In 1988, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) estimated there were 60,852 cases of AIDS (ARC [AIDS-related complex, i.e., mild symptoms of AIDS] not included). Adding the ARC positive cases increases the infected to 1,500,000.


The Miami Herald

July 29, 1991 Monday


By JAMES J. KILPATRICK Universal Press Syndicate

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta estimate that 42,000 persons may die of AIDS this year. About the same number will die in accidents on the highway.

By definition, AIDS is an “epidemic,” that is, a sudden and widely prevalent eruption of a contagious disease. Though the number of new cases appears to be leveling off, an estimated one million persons carry the HIV virus.


AIDS Alert

July 1, 1992

More women diagnosed with AIDS, different symptoms emerging; AIDS Guide for Health Care Workers

As of April 1992, 22,607 women with AIDS were reported to the CDC,while male AIDS cases totalled 192,002. However, it’s important to note that those numbers do not reflect the full magnitude of the epidemic. The CDC estimates that about a million Americans are infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) but have not yet developed AIDS [for a total of about 1.2 million infected, counting those who have not yet developed the disease and the approximately 214,000 who have]. Of those infected, as many as 140,000 may be women.



April 23, 1993

AIDS cases soar under new criteria; Definition of disease is expanded

by Laura Beil, Public Health Writer of The Dallas Morning News

The CDC also has not changed its estimate of the number of people infected with HIV, which causes AIDS.  Federal health officials still think that 1 million to 1.5 million Americans have been infected with the virus, which can remain dormant for more than 10 years.


[Press release]

June 4, 1993


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that about 250,000 people have been diagnosed with AIDS, and approximately 1 million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.  The CDC has estimated that the number of deaths from AIDS will double by 1995.


AIDS Alert

October 1, 1993

CDC estimate on HIV population based on survival time; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The estimate of 1 million cases of HIV in the United States is calculated based on a sensitive calculation called “back calculation,” and yet the figure has remained constant over the years.

Statisticians start with the number of AIDS cases reported over a certain period of time. Then they take the best estimates on the disease’s incubation period — the time it takes from seroconversion to developing AIDS, which now is about 10 years.

By applying the incubation period to the number of AIDS cases, they estimate backward to determine how many cases of HIV would be needed to have the present number of AIDS cases.

The problem is that the calculations are sensitive to the incubation period estimate. And those estimates are based on only a few studies, primarily of hemophiliacs and homosexuals whose seroconversions [changes in HIV status] are known, says Patricia Fleming, PhD, chief of the reporting analysis section of the division of HIVAIDS for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Another variable that must be factored in is the effect of treatment therapies on the rate of progression to AIDS. Because of these variables, the CDC uses the 1 million figure with caution, knowing it could be off by 100,000 to 200,000 cases. [Thus, the estimate is 0.8 to 1.2 million.]

The estimate is constantly updated, but the reason the 1 million figure has not changed over the years is that the CDC statisticians think that the number of new infections is roughly equal to the number of AIDS deaths. However, as the rate of infection levels off with improved prevention and education, deaths eventually will outnumber new infections and the infection number should go down.

It may be several years, however, before the CDC develops an accurate picture of the HIV estimate now that the new AIDS case definition has muddied the surveillance waters. The CDC plans to update its HIV estimate in 1994 after it has had one year of data collected under the new definition . . .



Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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