About AIDS

Enough with the NYC 'superbug'!

"New HIV superbug resistant to treatment! Causes AIDS in 3 months!" screamed the New York Times on Feb. 4, after a strident announcement by NYC health commissioner Friedman. The article went on about the gay male patient and his crystal meth-fueled sex binges. (It ran in Austin two days later.)

Reporters, HIV-service staff, clients, e-mailers – just about everybody has had questions, so I'd like to put some things in perspective.

First, Dr. Friedman's "announcement" has been criticized as premature and needlessly sensationalist. Even basic, critical information was not yet complete – lab work, epidemiological data, etc. In short, we don't know enough to go hyper. HIV is not spread casually, so New Yorkers wouldn't have been placed at risk by a delay until more was known.

This alleged "superbug" is – so far – limited to a single case. It's possible, perhaps likely, that at least one other gay New Yorker has it. But, while rare, there's nothing unique about virulent strains.

The strain was claimed to be untreatably drug-resistant but later revealed more quietly to be responding well to a regimen including the new drug Fuzeon. Actually, a substantial portion of newly diagnosed HIV infections are drug-resistant to some degree. That doesn't make them completely untreatable.

The patient's "rapid progression to AIDS" is problematic, too. There's contradiction about how long he's possibly been HIV-infected vs. how long diagnosed, and whether he actually has full AIDS. Again, while rare, some people do develop AIDS faster than the norm, based on their own immune capacity.

Why the dramatic announcement? Several motives have been suggested: to make Dr. Friedman the media darling at last week's Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections; to dramatize the link between HIV and crystal meth use; to demonize gay men and AIDS at this budget writing time; to dramatize support for Dr. Friedman's legislative request to loosen privacy laws in public health. Who knows?

Perhaps the real story here is not about just HIV, but the crystal meth epidemic. Even if nothing serious comes of this, making safe choices is still important. Regardless, dramatic announcements by authorities should be based on good science and nothing else.

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