The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2007 National HIV Prevention Conference is underway in Atlanta right now amid controversy over the federal agency's refusal to release the latest HIV incidence estimates for the United States.

AIDS activists say annual HIV infections may be as much as 50 percent higher than what the U.S. government has been estimating since 2001, and they complain that health officials are improperly delaying release of the new data, which is essential to drawing up the 2008 federal budget for HIV/AIDS-related programs. Among the groups demanding immediate release of the updated numbers is the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the nation's largest nonprofit HIV/AIDS health care, research, prevention and education provider.

On Dec. 1 (which also happened to be World AIDS Day), AHF issued a statement demanding that the data be released after the Wall Street Journal reported that an upward revision of AIDS incidence figures was likely. The New York Times and Washington Post also say they have sources confirming the revised estimate, Reuters reports. The new estimate is based on 2005 data and may be as high as 60,000 annual infections, compared with the 2001 estimate of about 40,000 new cases, according to a former CDC adviser.

In a letter dated Nov. 26, 2007 and sent to the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors and others, the CDC said it would release the 2005 HIV incidence estimates "in the coming months." AHF surmises that the agency sent the letter in response to widespread speculation that the latest incidence numbers will reveal an "astronomical rise" in the estimate of new cases. That speculation intensified after the National Minority AIDS Council-sponsored U.S. Conference on AIDS held last month in Palm Springs, Calif.

The CDC's letter says that the new figures currently exist in the form of a manuscript that the agency is submitting to an academic journal for peer review. In a statement issued yesterday in response to advocates' demands that it release the unreviewed data immediately, the agency says that it "would not be responsible" to discuss specific data before it's certain the estimates are reliable. But that claim is disputed by AHF President Michael Weinstein:

"The CDC is not an academic institution charged with collecting data to analyze for its own sake. It is a government body with an obligation to disseminate crucial information -- such as a 50% increase in reported HIV cases -- so that it may be used to protect the public health. The 2008 federal budget is being finalized now, and it is only right that Congress and the public at large have access to accurate information to ensure that public health policy and resource- allocation decisions can be made to ensure an effective response to the epidemic. That can't happen when the CDC is withholding information about the true nature of this country's epidemic. We hope that this is not yet another instance of the Bush Administration's suppression of information that could be damaging to their image, especially in light of the fact that the spike in new infections is, at least in part, likely due to failed policies of the administration, including the promotion of 'abstinence-only' prevention messages and the failure to promote condom use."

The data for the new estimate came from 19 states and cities -- including several states in the South, which has been hit particularly hard by the epidemic of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In 2003, directors of state AIDS and STD programs throughout the South issued the "Southern States Manifesto", which observed that the region has the nation's greatest proportion of persons living with AIDS and demanded immediate action to address the health emergency.

Among the factors contributing to the regional HIV/AIDS disparity are the South's relatively poor health infrastructure, higher poverty rates, and lack of affordable housing. In addition, HIV/AIDS is increasingly a disease afflicting racial minorities, and the South has a higher proportion of African American residents than other U.S. regions.

(White House photo of red ribbon adorning the North Portico of the building in honor of 2007 World AIDS Day by Eric Draper)