The alarmist and misleading new headlines about HIV transmission
March 12th, 2010
The Centers for Disease Control has issued a “new look at disproportionate impact of HIV and syphilis among U.S. gay and bisexual men”. And this “new look” is quite alarming:
The data, presented at CDC’s 2010 National STD Prevention Conference, finds that the rate of new HIV diagnoses among men who have sex with men (MSM) is more than 44 times that of other men and more than 40 times that of women.
That certainly sounds frightening. And it lends itself easily to anti-gay activist who argue that gay men and women do not deserve equal rights under the law because gay men are crawling with disease. (Iowa Independent)
Homosexual activity is “more dangerous for individuals who engage in it than is smoking,” and because of this, state lawmakers need to pass a constitutional amendment overturning last year’s Iowa Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, according to Iowa Family Policy Center President Chuck Hurley.
Naturally, anti-gay activists like Hurley fail to distinguish between “individuals who engage in homosexual activity” and individuals who engage in unsafe sex. And, having only the vaguest of notions about those same-sex couples who marry, he leaps at a conclusion that is out of his reach.’
Unsafe sex significantly increases the odds of seroconverting. And considering that the CDC lumps all men who have sex with men (MSM) together regardless of their relationship status or sexual practices, single gay men who whoop it up sans condom with a stranger tonight have a FAR MORE than 44 times likelihood of becoming HIV positive than does a heterosexual dude that does the same. Which is one reason we should encourage relationships and responsible sex.
But setting aside the lunacy of opposing committed relationships so as to stop promiscuous behavior, let’s look at the numbers themselves. And let’s consider the responsibility of the CDC and those who use their statistics to report them in a way that is meaningful and useful rather than pointlessly frightening.
Yes, “44 times that of other men” is scary. But what does it mean?
For that we have to look at the following paragraphs.
The range was 522-989 cases of new HIV diagnoses per 100,000 MSM vs. 12 per 100,000 other men and 13 per 100,000 women.
The rate of primary and secondary syphilis among MSM is more than 46 times that of other men and more than 71 times that of women, the analysis says. The range was 91-173 cases per 100,000 MSM vs. 2 per 100,000 other men and 1 per 100,000 women.
Unpacking the medical language, this is what we find:
There were about 33,750 new cases of HIV infection in 2007. Assuming that gay/bi men make up about 4% of the population, this number is about three quarters of one percent (0.75%) of all gay/bi men.
For syphilis, the number is about 5,900 cases and an infection rate of about one tenth of one percent (0.13%).
Previous analysis suggests that about 12% of all gay/bi men are currently living with HIV. As syphilis is treatable, the total number of gay men living with syphilis is less easy to determine.
Further, if we wish to be credible, we have to recognize that the gay community is not homogeneous. HIV and syphilis infections impact certain demographics far more than others. Factors such as race, location, education, and self-worth can have almost as much a factor on one’s likelihood to contract HIV as sexual orientation.
Too often we can read alarming headlines and think, “why fight it, it’s inevitable.” This isn’t true. Most gay men don’t have HIV and never will. And while these frightening statistics can remind us to be careful, they should be taken in perspective.
When we hear “HIV diagnoses… 44 times that of other men” or “2000 times higher than repeat blood donors”, we have to remind ourselves to step back and take a better look at the numbers. We need to recall that the purpose of information of this sort is to fight the virus, not the people who are infected. And we need to understand that we each are individual and not a statistic.