JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - The United Nations' top AIDS scientists plan to acknowledge this week that they have long overestimated both the size and the course of the epidemic, which they now believe has been slowing for nearly a decade, according to U.N. documents prepared for the announcement.
AIDS remains a devastating public health crisis in the most heavily affected areas of sub-Saharan Africa. But the far-reaching revisions amount to at least a partial acknowledgment of criticisms long leveled by outside researchers who disputed the U.N. portrayal of an ever-expanding global epidemic.
The latest estimates, to be released today, put the number of annual new HIV infections at 2.5 million, a cut of more than 40 percent from last year's estimate, documents show. The worldwide total of people infected with HIV -- estimated a year ago at nearly 40 million and rising -- now will be reported as 33 million.
Having millions fewer people with the disease is good news. Some researchers, however, contend that persistent overestimates in the widely quoted U.N. reports have long skewed funding decisions and obscured potential lessons about how to slow the spread of HIV. Critics have also said that U.N. officials overstated the extent of the epidemic to help gather political and financial support for combating AIDS.
The United Nations' AIDS agency, known as UNAIDS and led by Belgian scientist Peter Piot since its founding in 1995, has been a major advocate for increasing spending to combat the epidemic. Over the past decade, global spending on AIDS has grown by a factor of 30, reaching as much as $10 billion a year.
"There was a tendency toward alarmism, and that fit perhaps a certain fundraising agenda," said Helen Epstein, author of "The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS."
Annemarie Hou, spokeswoman for UNAIDS, declined to comment. In documents obtained by the Washington Post, U.N. officials say the revisions stemmed mainly from better measurements rather than fundamental shifts in the epidemic. They also say they are continually seeking to improve their tracking of AIDS with the latest available tools.
Among the reasons for the overestimate is methodology; U.N. officials traditionally based their national HIV estimates on infection rates among pregnant women receiving prenatal care. As a group, such women were younger, more urban, wealthier and likely to be more sexually active than populations as a whole, recent studies said.