WASHINGTON — The White House has ordered that a national study on the prevalence of AIDS infection be completed in six months, but federal health officials have complained privately that it would be impossible to obtain valid data that quickly, charging that "politicians are running the show" and diverting critical public health resources needed for the AIDS fight.
"If you had a Manhattan Project team of survey designers and unlimited money, you could do it--but I would have serious concerns about the validity of such a survey," one health official said Wednesday. "It's just not doable. We have limited human and financial resources. A lot will have to be taken from other important AIDS-related activities. This sounds like the shuttle again--politicians triumphing over technical advice."
Gary L. Bauer, the President's domestic policy adviser, acknowledged that the White House "does indeed want it done in six months", but said, "we wouldn't want a study in six months if it meant the study would be a lousy study."
'It's Long Overdue'
Bauer added: "We feel it's long overdue, and (it) hinders public policy not to know what the prevalence of infection is."
Bauer said that the study is needed "as quickly as humanly possible so that we can start making more legitimate projections on things like budget costs, hospital beds and other things we're going to have to consider."
The federally sponsored national study of AIDS infection was requested by President Reagan in a major AIDS address May 31 and is expected to involve the anonymous testing of a random sample of an estimated 45,000 Americans reached through a "household, censuslike" plan.
But public health officials, who asked not to be identified, said that a survey of such magnitude and complexity could not be completed in such a short time. They added that "the technical people" at the Centers for Disease Control, the agency in charge of the study, "have said that it is virtually impossible" but "it's not clear whether the technical concerns or limitations are being fully communicated to people at the policy-making level."
Requires Pilot Studies
One federal health official said that a major survey of this kind requires smaller, pilot studies first "to test the questionnaire and public acceptance," adding that this is necessary "when you're talking about a big study that uses methodology not previously used."
Further, he said, designing a "household" survey of this kind is complicated by the fact that certain groups at high risk for AIDS, such as intravenous drug users, "are often homeless or in prisons" and will probably be difficult to reach.
Health officials said that Dr. James W. Curran, director of the CDC's AIDS program, "was forced" by the White House to include a commitment to complete the study within six months in testimony Wednesday before the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on hospitals and health care.
The statement was contained in his written testimony, but Curran omitted it from his spoken remarks.
'We'll Do What We Can'
When asked about it after the hearing, Curran said he refused to discuss the statement in his testimony, saying: "With a limited amount of time, I couldn't say everything." Of the study's timing, he said: "We'll do what we can."
CDC Director Dr. James O. Mason, speaking through a Public Health Service spokesman, said that he hopes the study will be completed "six months after we have the resources."
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the body's immune system, leaving it powerless against certain cancers and otherwise rare infections. It can also invade the central nervous system, causing severe neurological disorders. It is commonly transmitted through anal and vaginal sexual intercourse, through the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles, and by woman to fetus during pregnancy.
In this country, AIDS has primarily afflicted homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners.