Why saving lives can lead to bad statistics

By Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D. & Michael Adams

A recent statistical twist tells a story of tragedy instead of inspiration. Washington DC was reported to have the highest percentage of HIV infection in the country.  NBC reported that the infection rate is 3.2 percent, far above the national average. According to the most recent account of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the prevalence over the whole country is less than 0.5 percent.

But, while Washington has had the highest rate in the United States for several years, there is a silver lining that belies the statistics.

New studies show that new cases (the incidence, rather than the prevalence) of HIV are declining. From 2007 to 2009, the rates of new cases dropped by 50 percent.  As impressive, is the fact that people with HIV are living longer through better treatment. And it is this latter success that has contributed to the disastrous number; as people live longer with HIV, they continue to be counted as part of the infected population.  If they had died, they would have lowered the infection rate.

The headlines might have read better had they touted the reduced incidence rate and increased survivorship in a city with a history of high HIV and AIDS prevalence.

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