Thursday, March 11, 2010

UCLA: Mutant HIV Spreads to NY, UK;
UCSF Didn't Approve News Release

There is much news to report, two full months after HIV modeler Sally Blower published a questionable study and the public relations team at UCLA wrote a controversial and stigmatizing news release about the study.

First up, Bloomberg News has put out a stenographic "story" about the two-month-old Blower study, and the only person quoted is the researcher, Blower. I guess it was too much trouble for Bloomberg News to find one of the many critics of the study and include skepticism in the story. Let's go over this example of stenographic journalism.

Bloomberg News' headline, Mutant HIV may undo drug progress, sets an apocalyptic tone and I don't recall the study addressing if the supposed resistance HIV strains are indeed undoing medical progress. If this headline is true, then I want to hear from Dr. Tony Fauci or other HIV drug experts at the National Institutes of Health, backing up this new claim.

The news service doesn't report that the UCLA study came out two months ago, nor is it explained why they are all of sudden reporting on the findings, but Bloomberg News reports that Blower has now found mutant strains are spreading:

Similar trends are emerging in other rich cities including New York, Chicago and London, said Sally Blower, a professor of mathematical biology, who led the research.

Oh, really? Who exactly, besides Madame Sally and her crystal ball, can back up her new alleged strains in three more cities besides San Francisco? Look here, there may be these alarming drug resistant HIV strains causing trouble, in the four cities claimed by Blower, but I am not aware of a single responsible public health official or AIDS agency in any of those cities saying what she says.

Here's a question Bloomberg News and Blower: Can you produce independently verified data to back up the four-cities claim or health officials endorsing the claim at the local level?

Also, since Blower now posits that three U.S. cities are facing the mutant strains, and it's the big worry she alleges, she should tell the federal health authorities at NIH and the CDC to do something about it.

The story struck fear in the hearts of many readers with this sentence: "Mutant forms 'pose a great and immediate threat to global public health,' they said."

That is quite a troubling claim, one that Blower herself moved away from in her recent letter to SF Supervisor Bevan Dufty, but Bloomberg News couldn't be bothered to find another source to back it up.

Blower was allowed to keep up her dire drumbeat, without any skepticism, and trash the "test and treat" theories of rivals:

"Universal test and treat is just a recipe for disaster," she said. "Our modeling is saying the drug resistant strains that you will generate from this kind of strategy are ones that will be very strong, transmissible, and therefore you will get an awful lot of problems."

What is also a recipe for disaster is the hysterical predictions of one UCLA math modeler whose research continues to generate questions and controversy, and who does not give a whit about the increased burden of stigma on people with AIDS.

In other news about Blower's model, the head of UC at San Francisco's public affairs department, Ms. Barbara French, issued the following statement to me today, through UCSF's liaison for LGBT health issues, Ms. Shane Snowdon.

Seems quite clear to me that UCSF had nothing to do with the UCLA news release back in January. I believe the UCSF press office, and many others at UCSF, learned valuable lessons from the debacle of 2008 when the SF campus created a mess with a study alleging drug-resistant staph infections among gays.

As I read this statement, I was reminded, as if the thought is ever far from my mind the topic is Blower and her hype, that the sole problem here is Blower herself. She may think generating a stenographic news story will deflect the very real campaign to hold her math modeling to a high degree of scrutiny, but the story and UCSF statement only add more ingredients to the recipe of accountability she and the UCLA press office will day deliver.

Here's the UCSF statement, putting much distance between them and Blower and UCLA:


"Thank you for your interest in the ramifications of the recent study of HIV drug resistance published by Sally Blower et al. We received a copy of your letter to Dr. Blower about the study, and recently reviewed her response to you.

I would like to clarify the role of UCSF’s media personnel.

"Dr. Blower writes: 'We wish to stress that the press release was written by the UCLA media person for HIV and was approved by the media team at UCSF.' UCSF media personnel did not, however, have the opportunity to approve the UCLA press release.

"When the study was circulated at UCLA and UCSF, Jeff Sheehy, Communications Director at the AIDS Research Institute at UCSF, told Enrique Rivero, the UCLA media representative for the study, that he thought it would be controversial. Rivero drafted a press release about the study that used qualifiers such as 'could' and differed significantly from the final UCLA release.

"On receiving this draft release, Dr. Blower apparently rewrote it, changing both tone and substance. On seeing the rewritten release, Sheehy told Rivero that he thought it would create problems, but the release was distributed. Sheehy, who did not have an opportunity to edit or approve the rewritten release, did not submit it to UCSF channels for distribution and did not send it to his contacts.

"Sheehy did contact Eileen Shields at the S.F. Department of Public Health, and Dr. Grant Colfax of DPH was designated to respond to media inquiries about the study. Sheehy directed media to Dr. Colfax to ensure that DPH concerns were presented.

"The study had UCLA first, second and senior authors, and UCSF’s ability to influence the content of the related press release was extremely limited. In the process that unfolded, UCSF media relations personnel did not have the opportunity to give meaningful input.

"We would be happy to provide any additional information that might be helpful. We appreciate your concern about this important topic."

Big shout out to UCSF's Barbara French and Shane Snowdon for issuing this very important background and clarification.

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