AIDS: The Questions They Won't Ask

World AIDS Day was celebrated this past weekend, so in the next few days we can expect the usual media blitz of stories designed to promote more spending on failed approaches to HIV/AIDS, and more bashing of the Bush Administration despite increases in spending by the billions each year.

Here are some of the questions that the media probably won't ask the professional HIV/AIDS lobby, which grows ever fatter while the human tragedy rises:

• What have American taxpayers gotten for the $20 billion per year (and rising) government spending on HIV/AIDS?

• What has happened to the more than half a billion condoms that the United States taxpayers have distributed to Third World countries during the past seven years, even while the media have attacked the Bush Administration's emphasis on abstinence?

• Federal funding for HIV/AIDS has increased dramatically every year since 1993, yet the number of new infections has not declined. Why do we spend more money every year on prevention programs that have failed to prevent new infections?

• Why do billions of dollars continue to flow to organizations and programs that have been a colossal failure by any yardstick?

• Why does the government spend far more on AIDS than cancer or heart disease, which each kill more than 10 times more people annually in the U.S.?

• After 25 years, why don't the AIDS experts even know how many people are really infected? Just last week, UNAIDS admitted it had overestimated the global numbers by millions and CDC is expected to announce that it undercounted the number of U.S. cases by tens of thousands.

• Why is the onus on potential victims to take personal responsibility for having “safe sex” instead of the people who are already infected with HIV/AIDS, as is the case with other medical epidemics?

• Why are health officials in major cities like Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco allowing the reopening of gay bathhouses, which facilitate the promiscuous sex that fuels the epidemic?

• With CDC statistics showing that HIV/AIDS in the United States is still astronomically higher among men who have sex with men (MSM), why are AIDS officials getting away with saying all Americans are equally at risk?

• Why have most of the media ignored studies, such as one in the American Journal of Public Health in June 2003 about a program among African-American female adolescents that reported that “17.8 percent of the adolescents acquired an STD despite 100 percent condom use.”

• With the District of Columbia this week reporting the highest per capita HIV/AIDS infection rate in the nation following years of condom promotion, why is the city planning to hand out at least 3 million condoms annually by 2009?

• Why does D.C. have 9 percent—nearly one in 10—of all U.S. pediatric AIDS cases, when the District has a population of only 580,000 in a nation of more than 300 million people?

Stephen Manning of the Associated Press reported that last statistic but offered no insight into why. But he did follow it up with this:

“Despite the virus's reputation as a scourge of homosexual male populations and intravenous-drug users, the biggest percentage increase in HIV cases since 2001 came from heterosexual contact. The number of women living with AIDS has grown 76 percent over the past six years.”

The increase in cases among women and even children is real and alarming, but it's not the whole story. The AP article ignores these points from the D.C. report:

• “Between 2001 and 2006, MSM sexual contact was the most common mode of transmission reported among newly reported AIDS cases.”

• “Between 2001 and 2006 among persons living with AIDS, the highest number of cases was consistently among those attributed to MSM sexual contact, followed by heterosexual contact and IDU [injection drug users].”

• “Males made up greater than 70% of all cases living with AIDS, consistent with national trends.”

When AIDS reporting leaves out key facts like these, news consumers can't be faulted for thinking that homosexual behavior no longer poses any greater HIV risk for males. Or that we just need to spend more on “safe sex” programs to make it all go away.

A congressional staffer on Capitol Hill who has been studying the AIDS issue for more than a decade told the Culture and Media Institute:

“The media, with the notable exceptions of the Washington Post and Boston Globe, tend to dumb down the issue to two things: lack of money, and lack of support for harm reduction programs, like condoms and needle exchange.

“There have been a number of really good articles in the Globe and Post in recent years. Some good scientists have been working behind the scenes to get the truth out. The reality is the science doesn't matter to the approach the government takes. Politics has always dictated the response to this disease, and science is twisted and bent to fit an agenda rather than adjusting the agenda to match up with the science.”

A June 22, 2003 Boston Globe article by staff writer John Donnelley, “UN report adds to a condom debate,” began this way:

“A draft report for the UN's AIDS agency has found that even when people use condoms consistently, the failure rate for protection against HIV is an estimated 10 percent, making them a larger risk than portrayed by many advocate groups.

“The report, which looked at two decades of scientific literature on condoms, is likely to add fuel to a heated political battle on U.S. policy in fighting AIDS in the developing world.”

One would think a 10 percent failure rate against a 100 percent fatal disease would continue to make news, but the stat has disappeared into a media black hole.

Likewise, the media decline to dig deeply into alleged success claims for needle-exchange programs. All three leading Democratic presidential candidates have pledged to increase federal money for needle giveaway programs, yet reporters seem to lack curiosity about whether these programs actually work. Absent from most coverage are embarrassing facts like the following, related by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) in the September 2005 edition of Drug Watch World News:

“In 1998, Vancouver, Canada introduced a needle exchange program (NEP) in an effort to control high rates of HIV/AIDS among injection drug users (IDUs). Today, Vancouver boasts the largest NEP in the Western Hemisphere.

“The city distributes over two million needles every year; local organizations distribute thousands of needles every day; and syringes are available over the counter at pharmacies. Unarguably, nowhere in North America are clean needles more accessible.

“When its NEP was established, HIV prevalence in Vancouver was one to two percent among the city's 6,000 to 10,000 IDUs. While the expectation was for needle distribution to decrease HIV rates, the opposite has occurred. HIV rates have soared, and so has the number of drug abusers in the city.

“Today, there are an estimated 12,000 IDUs in the Vancouver area, and about 40 percent of the city's IDUs have HIV. As a result, Vancouver has earned another not so boastful distinction – having the highest HIV infection rate of any city in the developed world. Furthermore, more than 90 percent of the city's IDUs are estimated to be infected with another blood borne disease, hepatitis C.”

When you tune in to the networks or your local newspaper, see how many questions are being asked that would shine a light on the longstanding “safe sex” approaches to HIV/AIDS.

The main question should be: Why are we throwing billions of dollars at the same old approaches? It can't be “compassion,” because it's not working.


Robert Knight is director of the Culture & Media Institute at the Media Research Center.