Thomas Frieden is facing criticism for revealing the discovery of a virulent case of HIV. Credit: F. M. ROBERTS/PHOTOGRAPHERS SHOWCASE

A decision by New York health officials to announce the detection of an unusually aggressive case of AIDS has led to criticism from some researchers and activists.

In December last year, a man from New York City tested positive for HIV and quickly showed signs of AIDS. Doctors at New York's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene believe that he developed AIDS between 2 and 20 months after he was infected; the disease usually takes about a decade to develop.

The patient's virus also resists treatment by the three important classes of HIV-fighting drugs. Officials at the health department say that this multiple drug resistance and the rapid progression to AIDS led them to warn the public of the possible spread of the strain. “This case is a wake-up call,” the city's health commissioner Thomas Frieden told a press conference on 11 February.

Some scientists and doctors have praised the decision to publicize the case. They hope that it will warn the public about the dangers of having sex while under the influence of the drug crystal methamphetamine, or crystal meth. The infected patient had unprotected sex with many men while using the drug. “My hope is that this news will bring the reality to the public, and we will see less risky behaviour,” says Jay Levy, a virologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

But others questioned whether the information released about the virus justified the public announcement. Similar cases have been reported before, critics say, but have not led to epidemics. In 2003, for example, researchers in British Columbia, Canada, reported two cases of HIV that seem similar to the New York virus. The Canadian patients were also infected with multidrug-resistant HIV that rapidly progressed to AIDS (K. C. W. Chan et al. AIDS 17, 1256–1258; 2003). But these viruses did not cause a widespread epidemic of HIV ‘superstrains’.

“I don't think the health department needed to hang its public-health campaign on a single anecdotal virus,” says John Moore, a virologist at Weill Medical College at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

The virus is being studied by researchers at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Rockefeller University in New York. More data on the strain are scheduled to be released at the 12th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston this week.

But the Aaron Diamond's involvement has also drawn criticism. Some have even suggested that the centre pushed for the announcement to build interest in the retrovirus conference, whose programme committee is chaired by David Ho, the Aaron Diamond's scientific director.

“There's a lot of suspicion because there's a confluence of issues, including the fact that the conference is around the corner, and David Ho is its chair,” says Richard Jefferys, basic-science project director at the New York-based Treatment Action Group.

But Ho says that the health department made the call to alert the public about the virus after consulting with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Ho adds that his group is presenting its data in the first available scientifically appropriate forum — the retrovirus conference. “I'm saddened by people who are trying to turn this into a personal attack rather than keeping focused on the case and its public-health ramifications,” Ho says.

The health department also defended its action. “We had the necessary information and we were confident — and remain confident — that the situation was of great public-health significance,” says an official.