No, the military hasn’t recorded a 500% increase in HIV cases
CLAIM: The U.S. military has recorded a 500% increase in new HIV infections since COVID-19 vaccines were introduced.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The U.S. military has not recorded any such increase. New HIV diagnoses among military members increased slightly from 237 in 2020 to 309 in 2021, then fell to 124 new infections recorded in 2022, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Defense. That’s a peak increase of 30% from 2020 to 2021, when COVID-19 vaccines were first introduced, and a decrease of nearly 60% from 2021 to 2022 when the rollout was well underway.
THE FACTS: Conservative commentators are claiming that rates of HIV in the military have skyrocketed since COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out, baselessly linking the two together to sow suspicion about the shot.
“The Armed Forces of the United States recorded a five hundred percent (500%) increase in AIDS after administering the COVID-19 Vaccine to US Troops. The COVID-19 Vaccine is implicated,” wrote Hal Turner, a right-wing radio host, on his website last week in a post titled “Vaccine-Induced AIDS” - Military Records 500% Increase in HIV after COVID-19 Vax.”
Turner gave no evidence for his claims, nor did he point to specific data to support that percentage. He did not respond to a request for comment. The claim was also repeated in a tweet that was shared more than 7,000 times.
But figures from the Defense Department and the Congressional Research Service show that the 500% figure is massively exaggerated. Further, medical experts have repeatedly emphasized that COVID-19 vaccination has not been linked to developing HIV, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which is caused by HIV. Nor does a condition called “VAIDS” — vaccine acquired immunodeficiency syndrome — exist.
A total of 1,581 service members, including those in the National Guard and Reserves have been diagnosed with HIV infections since 2017, said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Data from an independent legal firm that represented service members with HIV in a 2022 lawsuit has also cited similar numbers, estimating that approximately 2,000 service members had HIV.
According to Defense Department figures provided to The Associated Press, 317 service members were diagnosed with HIV in 2017; 280 in 2018; 314 in 2019; 237 in 2020; 309 in 2021; and 124 in 2022. The average number of new cases per year over that 6-year period is about 264.
These rates are consistent with figures that were cited in a 2019 Congressional Research Service report on HIV/AIDS in the military. That report cited estimates from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center showing that approximately 350 service members are diagnosed with HIV annually.
COVID-19 vaccinations first became available to the public in December 2020. In 2021, 72 more cases of HIV were diagnosed compared to 2020, constituting a 30% increase — but nowhere near the 500% claimed. And in 2022, when the vaccine rollout was well underway, 185 fewer new HIV cases were diagnosed, marking a 60% drop from 2021.
Though Turner did not give the source of his data, it matches claims spread about other illnesses purportedly linked to COVID-19 vaccination among military members that have been shared in the past.
In those cases, the numbers stemmed from what the bloggers and social media users said was “leaked” data from Defense Medical Epidemiology Database, or DMED, an internal database that documents military and medical experiences of service members throughout their careers. It is only accessible by military medical providers, epidemiologists, medical researchers, safety officers or medical operations and clinical support staff.
However, Schwegman told the AP that the claims citing this database were flawed due to an error in the data for the years 2016 to 2020.
The Defense Health Agency’s Armed Forces Surveillance Division reviewed the data in the system, comparing it to the source data, and found that the total number of medical diagnoses from 2016 to 2020 that were accessible in DMED “represented only a small fraction of actual medical diagnoses for those years,” said Schwegman.
In contrast, the total number of medical diagnoses for the year 2021 were accurate, which temporarily made it appear that there was a disproportionate increase in many medical conditions between the 2016 to 2020 figures and the ones reported in 2021.
“Comparison of 2021 to 2016-2020 resulted in the appearance of significant increased occurrence of all medical diagnoses in 2021 because of the under reported data for 2016-2020,” Schwegman wrote in a statement.
She said that the Armed Forces Surveillance Division has since corrected “the root-cause of the data corruption and it has been restored to full functionality.”
Overall, there is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines cause any kind of immune deficiency condition, let alone AIDS, multiple experts have told the AP in the past. Nor is there evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines damage the immune system.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.