The rate of new HIV infections in the military has been relatively unchanged since 2017. But social media posts falsely claim that the military has recorded a “500% increase in HIV since the COVID vaccine rollout.” A Defense Department spokesperson said errors in a military database sparked the inaccurate claim.
COVID-19 vaccines were introduced to the general public in December 2020. About 81% of the U.S. population have received at least one dose of a vaccine as of May 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In August 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III mandated that members of the armed forces receive the vaccine. By December 2021, 96% of active-duty military members were fully vaccinated. An individual must follow mandates and pass the fitness standard in order to stay in or be allowed to join the armed forces. The vaccine mandate for members of the military was rescinded on Jan. 10.
“DOD database reports 500% increase in HIV since the COVID vaccine rollout,” reads part of an Instagram post.
But there is “no association between COVID-19 vaccines and risk for HIV infection,” according to the CDC.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, attacks the body’s immune system, and if left untreated can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
The false claim on social media was based on incorrect data in a military medical system.
A spokesperson for the Defense Department told us in an email, “This is a false claim stemming from a rumor about the Defense Medical Epidemiology Database,” a tool used to access data on active service members within the Defense Medical Surveillance System, or DMSS.
“The Defense Health Agency’s Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division (AFSHD) conducted a complete review of the data contained in the Defense Medical Epidemiology Database (DMED) and found that the data was incorrect for the years 2016-2020,” the spokesperson said. (Emphasis is the Defense Department’s.)
“Comparing the DMED database to the source data contained in DMSS, AFHSD discovered that the total number of medical diagnoses from 2016-2020 that were accessible in DMED represented only a small fraction of actual medical diagnoses for those years. In contrast, the 2021 total number of medical diagnoses were up to date in DMED. 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.”
“AFHSD has corrected the root-cause of the data corruption and it has been restored to full functionality,” the spokesperson said.
HIV is one of 434 medical conditions that can cause an individual to be disqualified from joining the military. “While DOD policy prohibits the accession of any applicant who tests positive for HIV, current service members who become infected may continue to serve,” according to a March report by the Congressional Research Service.
From January 2017 to June 2022, 1,581 service members were diagnosed with HIV, according to “HIV/AIDS in the Military,” a report published in March by the Congressional Research Service.
“As of 2022, 981 (62%) remain in military service,” the Defense Department spokesperson said.
The amount of new HIV cases has fluctuated in recent years. There were 280 in 2018, 314 in 2019, 237 in 2020, 309 in 2021, and 124 in 2022, according to data provided by the spokesperson.
The largest annual increase was 30.4% in 2021 and the largest decrease was 60% in 2022 – nothing as large as the 500% increase cited in the social media posts.
The CRS report also notes, “The rate of newly diagnosed HIV infections (also called the seroprevalence rate) among service members tested in 2021 was 23 per 100,000.” That was the same rate as in 2017 — before COVID-19 vaccines were introduced.
This isn’t the first time that the military database has been the source of false social media claims.
Reuters Fact Check last year debunked social media posts that listed HIV and numerous other “medical conditions that purportedly ‘skyrocketed’ among U.S. military personnel in 2021.” But those increases were all due to the same error in the Defense Medical Epidemiology Database for the years 2016 through 2020.
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“Almost All Active Duty Service Members Receive Vaccines.” Department of Defense. 16 Dec 2021.
“COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 11 May 2023.
“DOD Rescinds COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate.” Department of Defense. 10 Jan 2023.
“Defense Medical Epidemiology Database.” Health.mil. Accessed 30 May 2023.
“HIV/AIDS in the Military.” Congressional Research Service. 21 March 2023.
McDonald, Jessica. “Q&A on COVID-19 Vaccines.” FactCheck.org. Updated 26 Sept 2022.
Spokesperson, Department of Defense. Email to Factcheck.org. 31 May 2023.