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Washington Post gets the HIV prevalence story wrong

Timothy Kincaid

September 24th, 2010

Darryl Fears of the Washington Post starts off with

Study puts HIV rate among gay men at 1 in 5

One in five gay men in the United States has HIV, and almost half of those who carry the virus are unaware that they are infected, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

The problem? That’s just flat false.

As we reported, the CDC study was of men in urban settings and not reflective of gay men on the whole. It was not even representative of gay urban men, just those who are living it up at the bars.

And there is a material difference.

As we have stated in the past, only about 12% of gay men are infected with HIV. But Fears doesn’t have to take our word for it, it’s right there in the study which he was reporting. And the CDC made a point of warning against reporting their study in a sensational way:

Finally, these findings are limited to men who frequented MSM-identified venues (most of which were bars [45%] and dance clubs [22%]) during the survey period in 21 [metropolitan statistical areas] with high AIDS prevalence; the results are not representative of all MSM. A lower HIV prevalence (11.8%) has been reported among MSM in the general U.S. population. [emphasis mine]

While it may take an extra few minutes to read the whole report, it can make the difference between providing news and spouting nonsense.

Of course the Post was not alone is their sloppy reporting. The AP was actually worse

One in five sexually active gay and bisexual men has the AIDS virus, and nearly half of those don’t know they are infected, a federal study of 21 U.S. cities shows.

“We don’t have a generalized epidemic in the United States. We have a concentrated epidemic among certain populations.”

Even gay magazine, Bay Windows, got in on the act with the headline, “CDC: One in five gay, bi men is HIV-positive”.



September 24th, 2010 | LINK

I wrote to Fears (Post) and Hannah Wearham (Bay Windows) and pointed out the error. I have no idea where to write to the AP. They’re pretty insulated from email.

This is tragically bad.

Thorne Cassidy
September 26th, 2010 | LINK

@Ray Thanks for doing that. Let’s hope they make a retraction.

September 26th, 2010 | LINK

This is the same type of statistical fallacy that Lon Mabon exploited in Oregon back in the 90’s when he claimed that we each had hundreds of sex partners over our lifetimes. He found a survey done in cruising bars which supported his prejudice and used those numbers to prove to the faithful flocks that we needed to be stopped. Measure 9 was the result.

It is vitally important that these errors be exposed because our enemies will not differentiate between the truth and what they want people to think is the truth.

Jim Pickett
October 1st, 2010 | LINK

Points well taken.

The numbers are pretty accurate for Chicago – where it is estimated that about 1 in 3 gay black men have HIV, 1 in 4 Latino, and 1 in 5 white.

But there are some important things to keep in mind—important context that seems to go missing in much of the rather sensationalized coverage I have read.

In Chicago, 88 percent of the gay/bi men and other men who have sex with men who were unaware of their HIV infection had been tested for HIV in their lifetime, and 61 percent of the men who were unaware of their HIV infection had reported taking at least two HIV tests in the past two years. This means that the majority of Chicago men who tested positive are NOT unaware of the need to test — as they have exhibited testing behavior that matches national guidelines.

The headlines would give the impression that gay men are clueless about HIV and just not paying attention – when in fact, many have tested positive since their last test.

I didn’t know I was HIV+ when I was tested 6 months after my previous negative test – duh.

What this says to me is that annual testing is not sufficient. I would recommend that sexually active gay men get tested for HIV two to three times a year, and should get tested for syphilis that frequently as well.

Per the president’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the resources deployed to combat HIV in this country must match the epidemic. Since the burden of HIV/AIDS falls on gay men and other men who have sex with men, priority must be given to these men. While the dollars need to follow the epidemic, we also need to improve our prevention efforts and broaden our strategy beyond a focus on individual level change.

In the fight against HIV in Chicago and across the country, we need to focus on on things like fighting homophobia, ensure access to appropriate care and treatment, and other systemic challenges that contribute to the disparities we are seeing.

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