Denialists and Conspiracists
AIDS denialists deny that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). While some reject the very existence of HIV by perpetuating the myth that the virus has never been isolated, others promulgate the idea, following Peter Duesberg, a professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, that HIV exists but is a harmless passenger virus rather than the cause of AIDS. Another group believes that researchers created HIV in a laboratory with the aim of using it as a biological weapon against people of African descent. Still another group claims that pharmaceutical companies created AIDS hysteria in order to turn a profit. That these views are opposed to scientific consensus is of marginal consequence; each view has acquired a following. Although the effectiveness of the anti-retroviral treatments has caused a large number of former dissidents and denialists to change their opinion, myths about HIV/AIDS continue to spread, mostly online, but also by means of misleading films.
The fact that HIV causes AIDS is considered scientifically conclusive. Fulfilling all three of Koch’s postulates, which serve as kind of a “litmus test” for determining the cause of any epidemic disease since the nineteenth century, HIV has been shown conclusively to be the cause of AIDS. According to a helpful article published by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, these postulates pertain to epidemiological association, isolation, and transmission pathogenesis. “With regard to postulate #1, numerous studies from around the world show that virtually all AIDS patients are HIV-seropositive; that is they carry antibodies that indicate HIV infection. With regard to postulate #2, modern culture techniques have allowed the isolation of HIV in virtually all AIDS patients, as well as in almost all HIV-seropositive individuals with both early- and late-stage disease. In addition, the polymerase chain (PCR) and other sophisticated molecular techniques have enabled researchers to document the presence of HIV genes in virtually all patients with AIDS, as well as in individuals in earlier stages of HIV disease. Postulate #3 has been fulfilled in tragic incidents involving three laboratory workers with no other risk factors who have developed AIDS or severe immunosuppression after accidental exposure to concentrated, cloned HIV in the laboratory. In all three cases, HIV was isolated from the infected individual, sequenced and shown to be the infecting strain of virus” (niaid.nih.gov).
Despite scientific evidence that has been supported by medications that have produced something of a “Lazarus effect,” bringing people even with CD4 counts of zero back to health, perpetuation of AIDS denialism is conducted mostly online, though two films have also been created to twist the facts and to mislead people into believing falsely that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. The Other Side of AIDS, a 2004 film by Robin Scoville (the spouse of Christine Maggiore, a prominent AIDS denialist who followed her infant daughter into death in 2008 after contracting several AIDS-related conditions), is predominantly a collection of interviews with people who have refused to take drugs, believing the opinion promulgated by Maggiore and others that drug companies were attempting to make profits off of common illnesses that have afflicted humans for centuries.
More recently, the 2009 film House of Numbers by Brent Leung has been criticized by a review for the New York Times as “willfully ignorant.” It resurrects the denialist’s claims by interviewing legitimate scientists, but then editing their words to promote Leung’s denialist agenda. According to Jeanne Bergman, writing for AIDStruth.org, “Leung in fact got the information he sought from the legitimate scientists, doctors, and advocates he interviewed, but he then edited it out of the film to deceive and confuse viewers. The audience is manipulated to reach the wrong answers.” More poignantly, Bergman goes on to articulate the implications of Leung’s willful ignorance and manipulative technique. “Since Leung leaves his own positions unstated, he dodges accountability for the film’s potential impact—namely, that people might decide that they don’t need to protect themselves or others from being infected with HIV, or that people living with HIV might reject medical care and the medications that could keep them healthy.” AIDSTruth.org has published an article to counter the untruths spread by the film.
To be sure, the history of AIDS denialism is a fascinating case study about how easily and effectively a body of information can be manipulated, challenged, and discredited in the minds of those so predisposed, often in this case by homophobic and racist viewpoints. Tragically, however, its impact has been extremely harmful. In South Africa, for example, people whose lives could have been prolonged by obtaining the medications that were available elsewhere were denied access under the ill-informed presidency of Thabo Mbeki, who subscribed to the denialist position, as did his appointed minister of public health. A Harvard University study recently estimated that 330,000 lives were unnecessarily lost between 2000 and 2005 as a direct result of that country’s government and its position on AIDS.
In agreement with a statement by AIDSTruth.org, my intention here is not to debate denialist claims. “Debating denialists would dignify their dangerous position in a way that is unjustified by the facts about HIV/AIDS. The appropriate way for dissenting scientists to try to persuade other scientists of their views on any scientific subject is by publishing research in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. For many years now, AIDS denialists have been unsuccessful in persuading credible peer-reviewed journals to accept their views on HIV/AIDS, because of their scientific implausibility and factual inaccuracies” (AIDSTruth.org). Such a refutation of denialist claims has been conducted well, and this work is widely available online.
Rather, here I would like simply to direct people to some websites that are useful when trying to grasp the harmful impact of AIDS denialism.
To contrast the two positions, visit: AIDSTruth.org (one site promoting sound scientific approaches to HIV/AIDS), and VirusMyth.com (one site promoting unsound and unscientific claims in relation to HIV/AIDS).
To read arguments against each claim, one by one, I recommend articles published by AIDSTruth.org, the Treatment Action Campaign, and Aegis. Nicoli Nattrass’s article “AIDS Denialism vs. Science” is also thorough and instructive.
To understand the emergence, biology, and history of HIV/AIDS, several sites are beneficial, including one from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the AIDS Education and Global Information System, and Tibotec, a pharmaceutical research and development company specializing in antiretroviral therapies. NOVA and Frontline, too, have broadcast high-quality programs in relation to HIV/AIDS. The Body and Avert also publish reliable information about HIV/AIDS.