A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the U.S. may have underestimated the number of new HIV infections occurring each year over the last decade by as much as 40 percent should send up red flags for Maryland health officials, particularly in Baltimore, which accounts for nearly half the state's AIDS cases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nationally, 56,300 people were newly infected with HIV in 2006. Previous estimates had put the number at 40,000. The revised figures were based on new diagnostic techniques that enabled researchers to measure HIV infection rates more precisely.
Unfortunately, Maryland was not included in the sample of states that participated in the CDC study. So it's hard to know exactly what the new findings mean here in terms of hard numbers. City health officials say that despite the CDC findings, they're still confident in their estimate of about 16,000 HIV-infected people in Baltimore.
So far, those numbers seem to be holding. There's no sign that city Health Department services for HIV-infected people are overtaxed. And the city has launched initiatives to combat the epidemic's spread that appear to be working. They include rapid testing for HIV in hospital emergency rooms, outreach programs to help people reduce the risk of contracting the virus and help in getting treatment for newly infected individuals.
Nevertheless, Health Department workers monitoring the epidemic would be wise to become more vigilant. The uncertainty about the size of the epidemic reported by the CDC is troubling, and it suggests that eventually more may have to be done - and probably sooner than later. The city must be prepared for the worst even as it continues to hope for the best.