The AIDS count

For years, critics have accused the United Nations of artificially inflating its estimates on the number of people with AIDS worldwide as a way of making the epidemic appear more widespread than it really is and thus wringing more money out of donor nations to fight it. They were feeling vindicated last week, when the U.N. released revised figures showing that the disease isn’t as prevalent as previously thought.

That’s no reason to be complacent. Even using the lowered estimate, AIDS is one of mankind’s deadliest afflictions, killing 2.1 million people in the last year. And even if the U.N. had been intentionally overstating the problem -- which is unlikely -- the PR effort didn’t work. The world still isn’t giving enough money.

The U.N. now says that 33 million people are infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, compared with last year’s estimate of nearly 40 million. It also says that 2.5 million will be infected with the virus this year, a 40% drop from the 2006 estimate. It would be nice to attribute the change to wildly successful efforts to fight the disease, but in reality it simply reflects a change in sampling methodology.

Figuring out the number of people in developing nations with any disease is largely guesswork because many sufferers never get treatment and thus can’t be counted. While previous estimates extrapolated numbers for rural populations based on the number of urban dwellers seeking medical help, this year the numbers were based on house-to-house surveys in 30 heavily afflicted countries.


The good news in the report from the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization is that the percentage of the world’s adults with AIDS is no longer rising. The bad news is that the number of infected people is still going up -- this is possible because the world’s population is growing. Also, a big part of the reason for the leveling effect is that many infected people are dying: If 2 million people die and 2 million more are newly infected, we might be breaking even statistically, but we’re not making progress.

At a 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations committed to give enough to assure universal access to treatment for AIDS sufferers by 2010. The U.N. estimated in September that annual spending on AIDS worldwide would have to reach $42 billion by that year to meet the goal. That figure might be lowered in response to the revised prevalence numbers, but probably not by much. This year, worldwide spending was about $10 billion, and if current trends continue, it’s projected to hit only about $15 billion by 2010.

Any way you count them, the millions of needless deaths from this disease are too many, and too little is being committed to solve the problem.