A clinical trial has revealed that new antiretroviral drugs reduce HIV transmission rates by 96%. A New York Times op-ed rightly describes this breakthrough as extraordinary. Yet the op-ed is not a news bulletin, but rather a call for increased funding.
The author laments "the cruelty-creep and passion-drift by federal and state governments" and their "lack of financing and fealty in the fight against AIDS." While an appeal for greater funding for medical research is hardly ignoble, the cause for AIDS research in the U.S. has long benefited from a PR campaign which has garnered greater resources than are statistically defensible. This inequality presents cruelty and a lack of passion toward other, more prevalent and deadly diseases.
Deaths due to heart, brain and lung disease, as well as cancers and other infectious diseases, dwarf AIDS fatalities in the U.S. About 17,000 people died last year from AIDS, compared to well over a million from heart disease - yet per patient expenditures for AIDS treatment is 100 times higher than that for heart disease. Even globally, where AIDS is a far greater threat, the disease is responsible for less than 5% of mortalities - a giant number, no doubt - but far less than heart disease (30%), infections (18%) and cancer (12%). Further, these latter diseases are usually unpreventable through personal behavior - non-smokers may still get lung cancer, but chaste non-needle-sharers are in the clear from AIDS.
HIV research deserves attention and funding, but the criteria for determining public priorities for any disease should consist of a just (i.e., non-political) assessment of frequency and lethality, means and capacity for prevention, per patient cost, likelihood of finding a cure, etc. Under such criteria, HIV research is likely due for a funding cut.