Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy

Seeking Stories of AIDS Denialism

Have you or someone you know been harmed by AIDS Denialism? If you, or someone you care about, have been advised to stop taking HIV meds, ignore HIV test results, purchase a 'natural' cure etc., please email me.

All information will be kept confidential.

Friday, December 25, 2009

AIDS Denialism 2009: A Year in Review

The first year of my Author’s Blog is winding down, and what a year it has been. The year started and ended with the recent death of AIDS Denialist Christine Maggiore. Despite her having tested HIV positive and dying from pneumonia and disseminated herpes - two AIDS defining conditions, Maggiore was proclaimed by denialists to have died from everything but AIDS – from coffee enemas gone wrong to the stress caused by TV show Law and Order SVU. Ultimately, AIDS denialists placed their own Christine Maggiore ‘autopsy’ report online. The report was delivered by none other than Mohammed Ali Al-Bayati, who concludes that Maggiore died of the same cause that he determined killed her daughter – antibiotic poisoning. Denialists never cease to amaze.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Harvard Denialism, Mistrust, and Stigma Symposium

Hosted by Dr. Laura Bogart, Harvard Center for AIDS Research

On October 19, 2009 Harvard University hosted a day long symposium on AIDS Denialism and Conspiracy Theories. Presentations featured new research and social analysis with excellent commentaries and questions.

I had the opportunity to present along side Nicoli Nattrass from the University of Cape Town South Africa. Nicoli is one of the great anti-denialist researchers and activists. The Symposium also featured Pride Chigwedere from Harvard University who provided additional insights into the devastating effects of AIDS denialism in South Africa. Nicoli and Pride presented compelling research that shows how hundreds of thousands of South Africans needlessly died from the AIDS denialist policies during the Mbeki/Manto/Duesberg era.

In addition to AIDS denialism, the Symposium featured the latest research on AIDS conspiracy theories. Pioneering researcher Laura Bogart organized the Symposium and she presented some of her latest research showing the harmful consequences of AIDS conspiracy theories.

Now you can watch the Symposium presentations and discussions at the Harvard Initiative for Global Health website. Listen for the uninvited and always interesting example of AIDS Denialism in action provided by John Lauritsen. See if you can pick out other frequent bloggers in the audience.

Q&A Session featuring AIDS Denialist John Lauritsen as himself

Symposium Summary
HIV denialism is a barrier to HIV prevention and treatment at the individual, community, and policy levels, and can increase HIV stigma, homophobia, and racism. This symposium focused on misconceptions related to HIV, defined as mistrust, suspicion, and rejection of medical research (e.g., HIV does not cause AIDS, HIV was created in a government laboratory). Researchers and community speakers defined HIV denialism and conspiracies and discussed their distinct consequences for policies, individual behavior related to HIV prevention and treatment, and HIV stigma.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The End of an Error: AIDS Denialist & Former South African Health Minister 'Manto' has Died

The former South African Health Minister 'Manto' has died.

I sat behind Manto at the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto. We were in the session where at least a few dozen AIDS activists, mostly from the Treatment Action Campaign, filed up on the stage leading a call for Manto to resign or be fired. I was struck by her detachment. I remember thinking that she was so unmoved by the scene she was either in another world or had simply gotten used to people hating her. My own impression was that she was not dealing from a full deck of cards. Nearly catatonic. At that moment she seemed like a sad case. A throwback to my days working on psychiatric inpatient units.

Manto will be, and should be remembered as the person who implemented Mbeki’s AIDS denialist policies. Manto may very well have been the perfect person to serve as Mbeki’s Minister of AIDS Denial. But let us not forget that these were Mbeki’s policies. Manto was certainly complacent in AIDS Denialism, but she was not the architect. Manto played a critical role in the death of over 350,000 of her people and the senseless HIV infections of 35,000 babies. She also received personal counsel from Matthias Rath and Roberto Giraldo. Her legacy is theirs.

UPDATE: New York Times Story

AP Reports
CELEAN JACOBSON, Associated Press Writer

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa's former health ministerManto Tshabalala-Msimang, who gained notoriety for her dogged promotion of lemons, garlic and olive oil to treat AIDS, has died. She was 69.

The ruling African National Congress said Tshabalala-Msimang died in a Johannesburg hospital Wednesday from complications related to a 2007 liver transplant. Media outlets said she was possibly undergoing tests for a possible second transplant when she died.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

HIV, AIDS, and One Year Later: No Rest for Christne Maggiore

There is apparently no rest for Christine Maggiore. Exploited by AIDS Denialists throughout her bout with HIV infection, the manipulation of facts and twisting of reality continues one year after her sad death. Christine Maggiore tested HIV positive in 1992, as proven by her HIV positive test results shown in the film House of Numbers. Christine died of pneumonia and disseminated herpes (an AIDS defining condition) as shown on her Death Certificate.

Now we see an autopsy summary that includes her having another AIDS defining condition, Pneumocystis jiroveci (carinii) pneumonia (PCP) - although the actual autopsy report is unavailable and her Death Certificate shows no autopsy was conducted. Yet, the report states that Christine Maggiore did not die of AIDS. Rather, she died of antibiotic poisoning.

Coincidentally(?), we are to believe that her baby Eliza Jane Scovill also died of antibiotics despite the official report by the Los Angeles Coroner that ruled she died from complications of AIDS. At first, AIDS Denialists claimed that Christine Maggiore died from a ‘bad detox’. Then there was speculation that she died from the stress caused by the Law and Order SVU television episode that portrayed her AIDS Denial. Now it seems Law and Order is off the hook and antibiotics killed Christine.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Does Luc Montagnier Make the Case for AIDS Denialism?

If you have wondered just how manipulative and destructive AIDS Denialism can be, look no further than the ‘documentary’ House of Numbers. As I have posted before, House of Numbers uses the classic tactics of AIDS Denialism to create the illusion of a debate among scientists as to whether HIV causes AIDS.

Images can be powerful and persuasive. In the age of digital editing, anyone can snip away in their own home to create what could appear to be a credible film. Such is the case with House of Numbers.

The latest mischief focuses on four minutes of snips from an interview in House of Numbers with Nobel Prize winning discoverer of HIV, Dr. Luc Montagnier. AIDS Denialists around the world have rejoiced at those four minutes of footage. Aside from the
Rethinking AIDS Society etc… the video of Dr. Montagnier has quickly taking on a life of its own with…

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Killer syndrome: The Aids denialists

Why does a small band of scientists and campaigners persist in denying the link between HIV and Aids, when the evidence that they are wrong is overwhelming?
by Rob Sharp, The Independent, London, December 1, 2009

A middle-aged man walks into an East London café and apologises for being late. With his clipped hair and bus-driver's uniform of thick overcoat, shirt, and branded tie, he looks like any other public service employee. But soon he delivers a speech of startling ferocity against the medical establishment.

Mike explains that he runs a London-based health website on which he posts articles and links to information that questions whether HIV causes Aids, disputes the existence of HIV, and denies the fact that unprotected sex helps to spread it. He offers support for those who, he says, are "negotiating with medical authorities over taking a different approach to dealing with their circumstances." He claims to get thousands of hits on his site and has helped advise several people who have been diagnosed with HIV and are launching legal action against their local health authorities, in the belief that they have been unfairly treated by the doctors who are trying to help them.

Mike is an Aids denialist. He shares the view of a global network of academics and campaigners that follow the proclamations of Peter Duesberg, a cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who believes HIV does not cause Aids. And, alarmingly, 2009 has been a good year for the denialist community.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Science, pseudoscience and professional responsibility

New article in Health-e
By John Moore
Surveys have consistently shown that over 40% of Americans do not believe in evolution. It is not surprising, then, that our society is vulnerable to being fooled by people who misrepresent scientific or historical facts.
Henry Bauer in search of Nessies

We are now all too familiar with the crazed activities of the 'Birthers', anad hoc, right wing political group refusing to accept President Obama was born in the United States. Earlier this year, we saw media coverage of the insane views of a clique that refuses to accept American astronauts walked on the moon 40 years ago. The "9/11 Truth Movement" flourishes on the internet, arguing that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not hit by hijacked jetliners, but were blown up by the CIA at the behest of Israeli intelligence. Conspiracy groups like these usually do little real damage to society, although the activities of the "9/11 Truth Movement" foster anti-Semitism and insult the memories of the nearly 3000 Americans who died on 9/11. Unfortunately, other equally bizarre and factually unfounded, internet-based conspiracy groups can, and do, harm, even kill, significant numbers of people. This is not just an American problem, as the ripple effects of conspiracy theories spread worldwide via the internet. Indeed, the most serious consequences of one such group’s actions have been felt in Africa.

A small group of misguided and, in some cases malicious, individuals have long promoted the view that HIV does not cause AIDS or, in an even more bizarre twist of the truth, that HIV does not even exist. An even nastier variation of the theme is that HIV was created by the US government as a device to kill "undesirables", such as people with black skins or who are gay. None of these opinions is true, and there is not a shred of credible scientific or historic evidence to support them. Unfortunately, the Mbeki administration in South Africa put in place policies based around the premises that HIV is harmless but anti-retroviral drugs are dangerous. This decision caused over 330,000 unnecessary deaths during the first half of this decade. And yet the "AIDS Denialists" even question this death toll, a tactic no different from Holocaust Deniers asking "Did six million really die". Many Americans and Europeans have also died, persuaded by the "AIDS Denialists" that they did not need to take anti-retroviral drugs to treat their HIV infections. Distrust of the federal government and the medical establishment among African American communities has adversely affected AIDS prevention and treatment programs in the USA, in no small measure due to the crazy belief that HIV was created as a weapon of selective genocide. Indeed, this particular rumor even re-surfaced in the last Presidential election campaign. Real people die real deaths as a direct result of the pseudo-science promoted by the "AIDS Denialists".

In a similar vein, groups that claim vaccination is harmful have harmed global immunization programs, and thereby caused avoidable deaths worldwide. A conspiracy theory group often called "The Mercuries" has been particularly vociferous in its argument that a mercury-containing preservative found in some vaccines causes autism. There is less mercury in a vaccine shot than in a tuna fish sandwich, and the mercury present in the fish is in a more dangerous chemical form. Overall, a now vast body of solid scientific evidence has proven that autism has no connection whatsoever to any vaccine or vaccine component. This is now settled science within the professional community, which understands that the cause of autism is based in human genetics. But despite the facts, the distrust of vaccines that has been created by “The Mercuries” and other anti-vaccine conspiracy groups is now damaging efforts to counter swine flu by vaccination, both in America and, increasingly, elsewhere. The polio vaccine eradication campaign has been harmed, notably in Nigeria, by rumors that the vaccine is contaminated with dangerous chemicals, or even with HIV, or that it was designed by “white people to sterilize black people”. As a result, this dangerous infection has still not been eradicated from Africa, where it lingers on, killing and paralyzing yet more people.

The mindsets of the "AIDS Denialists" and "The Mercuries" are similar to each other. Both groups are irrational on the science, twisting the facts to a perverse extent and stubbornly ignoring and rejecting all the evidence that speaks against their views. Each group is bolstered by a very small number of scientists whose paper qualifications provide them with a superficial, wafer-thin veneer of academic credibility. The two conspiracy groups contain individuals who will resort to threats of violence and who harass those who dare to speak up against them. A common tactic of both groups is to smear scientists and physicians who recommend AIDS drugs or the use of vaccines as being nothing more than paid tools of the pharmaceutical industry. Yet both the "AIDS Denialists" and "The Mercuries" are supported by promoters of “alternative (i.e., quack) therapies" who have a financial interest in damning approved anti-HIV drugs or licensed vaccines. “Ambulance-chasing” lawyers have also been heavily involved with the anti-vaccine groups, fostering the hopes of grieving parents that they (and the lawyers) might receive a payout from a scientifically ill-informed jury.

The conspiracy theory groups also receive the support of a small, but noisy, subset of media professionals who seem attracted to the personalities involved, smelling stories in the controversies. This has been particularly problematic recently in the anti-vaccine arena, where some American chat shows and right wing news programs have given undue attention to “The Mercuries”. Bizarre as it may seem, the views of medically unqualified Hollywood celebrities are given equal, or even greater, weight on these shows than those of expert physicians and scientists. Science and pseudoscience should never be “balanced” in this way. To make an analogy: if a film star claimed that we should not fly on a jetliner because mercury contamination could make the wings fall off, we would simply laugh, preferring to listen to the views of qualified aeronautical engineers and metallurgists (and to our own experience as travelers). Yet, nowadays, film stars’ views on vaccine composition are given huge weight by some chat show hosts.

The "AIDS Denialists" and "The Mercuries" are no different from the "Birthers", the moon-landing hoaxers, the "9/11 Truth" members and the Holocaust Deniers in the irrationality of their views and their belief in government conspiracies and cover-ups. Indeed, some members of the various groups flit from one conspiracy-themed web site to another, seeking and finding solace in a variant form of irrationality. One of the very few academic supporters of the" AIDS Denialism" movement also investigates the Loch Ness Monster, Alien Crop Circles and other such fringe or paranormal themes. It would be funny if it were not so tragic.
What can be done about dispelling this kind of damaging nonsense? America has a strong tradition of free speech, so dangerous views will continue to be promoted, however harmful they are to public health and the best interests of society. The internet is the territory of the conspiracist, and it is likely to remain so. But media professionals should not be so unquestioning of the science when they provide airtime or column inches to those with fringe views. Controversy may help sell advertising, but at what cost?

A particular concern is that the ideas that HIV is harmless and that vaccines cause autism have been underpinned by a very few academics or physicians working in American or European universities or hospitals. These “thought leaders” for the conspiracy groups should now be made to face the professional consequences of their scientifically unsupportable actions. Is academic freedom such a precious concept that scientists can hide behind it while betraying the public so blatantly? When the facts are so solidly against views that kill people, there must be a price to pay. Post-tenure review of the progress of academic careers is something the university system could put in place if it chose to. How can bona fide universities justify their employees teaching students, even medical students, that HIV is harmless? How can academic and medical institutions still employ people whose views lead to the deaths of over 330,000 South Africans? Shielding the proponents of pseudoscience by doing nothing is a dereliction of a duty to the public. It is also moral cowardice. It is now time for Africa to speak out and demand action against those who have been responsible for so many deaths on this continent.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In denial: The McGill Daily’s Stephanie Law exposes the dangers of ignoring the causal link between HIV and AIDS

Published in the McGill Daily
By Stephanie Law
Published: Nov 16, 2009

Christina Maggiore died of an AIDS-related illness on December 27, 2008. She was a successful businesswoman who started a multimillion-dollar import/export clothing company, and a freelance consultant for U.S. government export programs. Maggiore is most notorious for her role as an HIV-positive activist who promoted the idea that HIV is not the real cause of AIDS. She was an HIV-denialist.

Maggiore was diagnosed with HIV in 1992. In 1994, she met Peter Duesberg, a molecular biology professor at the University of California at Berkley. Duesberg convinced Maggiore that HIV does not lead to AIDS. A year later, Maggiore started one of the largest networks of HIV-denialists and skeptics, called Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How to spot an AIDS denialist

Rogues, pseudoscientists, snake oil peddlers – Seth Kalichman reveals the sinister tactics used by those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS in a new article in The New Humanist magazine.

Imagine that you or someone you love just received an HIV positive test result. The news is devastating. After a short time you begin to face the diagnosis. You turn to the Internet for answers. Searching the words “AIDS diagnosis” brings up thousands of websites. A whirlwind of information spins your mind.

One credible-looking website,, reads: “There is no cure for AIDS. There are drugs that can slow down the HIV virus and slow down the damage to your immune system. There is no way to ‘clear’ HIV from the body. Other drugs can prevent or treat opportunistic infections (OIs). In most cases, these drugs work very well. The newer, stronger ARVs have also helped reduce the rates of most OIs. A few OIs, however, are still very difficult to treat.”

With a click of the mouse, an equally credible-looking site,, asks: “Did you know … Many experts contend that AIDS is not a fatal, incurable condition caused by HIV? That most of the AIDS information we receive is based on unsubstantiated assumptions, unfounded estimates and improbable predictions? That the symptoms associated with AIDS are treatable using non-toxic, immune-enhancing therapies that have restored the health of people diagnosed with AIDS and that have enabled those truly at risk to remain well?”

Which do you trust? Which do you believe? Which would you want to believe? Would you choose to believe there may be hope offered by medical treatments or would you prefer to believe that HIV is harmless? This simple example illustrates the lure of AIDS denialism.

Read the whole story at The
New Humanist.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Hello Professor, a Brent Leung is here to see you"

House of Numbers continues to be the talk of AIDS Denialism. There are many lessons to be learned from the AIDS Denialist crockumentary House of Numbers. The real lesson for scientists is that just because a guy has a camera crew does not mean you should agree to be interviewed by him. Thinking twice before sitting down in front of a camera is a worthwhile lesson indeed. The October 15 issue of Nature, a magazine well known for its excellent book reviews, published a great story on the hazards of scientists appearing in documentaries gone wrong. Too bad the article came out after House of Numbers was in the can. I post the article here for future reference.

And don’t forget to check out the new House of Numbers Website. Everyone should see House of Numbers.But be sure to read up before going.

UPDATE: Editors at Science Daily react to the misrepresentation (lying?) about T-Cells and AIDS twisted in House of Numbskulls.

UPDATE: Joseph Sonnabend, MD - Physician and AIDS Researcher speaks out on the fraud behind House of Numbers.

Caught on camera

What to do when you are interviewed for an unscientific documentary

Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, has always had to deal with angry e-mails from people who think that global warming isn't happening, and that Schneider is part of a conspiracy to promote it. He has been vocal about the dangers of climate change for decades.

In the past week, however, Schneider has been deluged by furious messages. They have been provoked by a clip circulating on the Internet from Not Evil Just Wrong, a documentary film claiming that global-warming fears are 'hysteria'. The clip explains how Schneider did an interview — and then how the university informed the film-makers that it had rescinded permission for using any of the Stanford footage and that Schneider had withdrawn permission to use his name or interview. Schneider says he backed out when he realized that the film-makers were polemicists who had lied to him about their intentions. Some climate-sceptic commentators are accusing him of censorship.

Schneider is by no means the first scientist to feel hoodwinked by film-makers. British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins ended up in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a film purporting to show how academics who do not accept evolution are frozen out of academia. Dawkins says that he was conned — that the film-makers had presented the project to him as an even-handed effort entitled Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion. Carl Wunsch, an oceanographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, felt he was "swindled" in a like manner by the producers of The Great Global Warming Swindle. And Nikos Logothetis of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, let a seemingly objective film crew into his primate laboratory — only to see the footage used in an animal-rights documentary that slams him as cruel.

For many scientists, the natural response to such stories is to stop talking to the media. But that would be an overreaction. For one thing, such misrepresentations are rare. Schneider estimates that he has given some 3,500 interviews since the 1970s, and only twice has he been "set up". Most journalists and documentarians are honestly trying to report the facts, and scientists have a responsibility to tell the public about their work — especially if it is supported by public money.

Fortunately, scientists can do much to protect themselves. When someone asks for an interview, for example, a scientist should enquire about starting assumptions, the intended audience and the identity of the project's backers. And, if possible, researchers should check the earlier work of the journalists and any companies behind the film for a partisan tone, or unacceptable levels of sensationalism.

But if these efforts fail, and it is discovered too late that the film-makers are bent on using an on-tape interview to promote a view that seems unscientific, the question becomes what steps to take. There is rarely a way to withdraw an interview that was given on the record, for good reason. In any case, making a fuss can be a gift of publicity to film-makers. Schneider admits that he might have spared himself the deluge of e-mails had he just ignored the makers of Not Evil Just Wrong.

A better approach might well be to complain to the television channels and broadcasting regulators, many of which have standards for their programming. The Great Global Warming Swindle was censured by Ofcom, Britain's broadcasting regulator, for breaking several rules in its broadcasting code. And when the same documentary was aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, it was followed by a point-by-point debate and rebuttal.

In the end, this is perhaps the most effective way to limit the damage. Bad journalism is best met not with red-faced indignation, but with good journalism. The truth is the best revenge.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Harvard Symposium on Denialism, Mistrust & Stigma

Death by denial:Symposium explores HIV denial, conspiracy theories

By Alvin Powell Harvard Gazette

People who deny that the HIV virus causes AIDS continue to persist in their beliefs despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, nurtured by the broad reach of the Internet and cherry-picked scientific claims, AIDS authorities said Monday.

Researchers from Harvard, elsewhere in the United States, and South Africa convened at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts to decry HIV “denialism,” saying that the continued questioning of HIV’s role in AIDS harms those infected with the virus by discouraging both testing and treatment.

According to the speakers, denialism takes two major forms. Some skeptics deny that HIV plays a role in AIDS, or that it even exists, while others believe in AIDS conspiracies, acknowledging that HIV causes AIDS but questioning HIV’s origins, saying it results from a government conspiracy, is intended as a genocide campaign against blacks, that it was created in CIA labs, or is of other sinister origin or purpose.

The event, sponsored by the Harvard University Center for AIDS Research, was presented in conjunction with the Carpenter Center’s exhibit “ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987-1993.” The exhibit contains posters, T-shirts, fliers, and pamphlets from ACT UP’s AIDS activism campaigns which, through sometimes graphic and jarring messages, pushed government action against AIDS. The campaign argued that the government dragged its feet because of homophobia and racism aimed at two groups prone to the ailment: gay men and intravenous drug users, who are often minorities.
Laura Bogart, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston, introduced the event, saying that denialism also includes odd beliefs, such as that drugs for HIV treatment actually cause AIDS. Denialism, she said, is gaining momentum because of the reach that its proponents have on the Internet, and it may have greater traction in communities that already mistrust the government because of past discrimination, revelations of secret medical experiments, and the like.

The symposium examined how denialism affects prevention and treatment, public policy, and human rights.

“Bad ideas have bad consequences,” Bogart said.

Kalichman, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, said denialist beliefs are surprisingly widespread. He said most people’s attitude when hearing of HIV denial is, “Oh, those people are still around?” In the uncertain early years of the AIDS epidemic, Kalichman said, denialists were dissidents from the prevailing but still uncertain scientific views. As the body of evidence about the nature of HIV and AIDS grew, dissent turned into denial, wrapped in conspiracy theories. Now, Kalichman lumps HIV denialists with those who deny the Holocaust and global warming, and who believe 9/11 conspiracy theories. All use similar strategies, he said, including false experts, bad science, and selective use of valid scientific results.

Kalichman cited a 2007 report on 696 gay men in five U.S. cities that showed a surprisingly high acceptance of denialist beliefs. Forty-five percent, he said, agreed with the statement “HIV does not cause AIDS,” and 51 percent agreed with the statement “HIV drugs can harm you more than help you,” remarking that it would be troubling if even half those numbers believed such statements.

Kalichman said research shows that the Internet is a critical source of denialist information, and that people who hold denialist beliefs are more likely to have symptoms, less likely to adhere to drug regimens, and less likely to take treatment medication in the first place.

Denialism may have done its most damage in South Africa during the tenure of President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki, who endorsed denialist beliefs, delayed the beginning of large-scale AIDS drug treatment, which allowed the pandemic to grow unchecked.
Nicoli Nattrass, director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit and economics professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, presented preliminary results from a large-scale study of teenagers and young adults there. The results, which are still being analyzed, show that denialist beliefs are held disproportionately by black African men and are far more likely to be held by those supportive of Mbeki’s health minister, who has been replaced by the current administration.

Recent research showed how damaging denialist beliefs can be, concluding that Mbeki’s failure to roll out HIV drugs between 2000 and 2005 resulted in 330,000 unnecessary deaths and the infection of 3,500 infants with HIV

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Can Peter Duesberg be Trusted on Cancer?

This week's News Week Magazine raises questions regarding Peter Duesberg's credibility as a cancer researcher. Duesberg is best known for his AIDS Denialism. What many may not know is that Peter Duesberg maintains a small laboratory privately funded by Robert Leppo where he researches potential causes of cancer.

Peter Duesberg was among the first scientists to isolate cancer-causing genes and cancer-related retroviruses. Early in his career, Duesberg worked with other Berkeley scientists, including acclaimed molecular biologist G. Steve Martin, to discover the first cancer-causing genes—oncogenes. The Berkeley Group was among the first to demonstrate that retroviruses carry oncogenes that transform normal cells into deadly cancer cells.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Moron AIDS Denialist Film House of Numbers: Notes from the show

Having seen the AIDS Denialist film House of Numbers, I must say that it is worse than anyone could imagine. The film misuses the words of leading AIDS scientists to raise doubts about whether HIV causes AIDS, the validity of HIV testing, and the benefits of HIV treatments. Context is everything, and House of Numbers creates an illusion of debate among scientists by placing scientists along side of pseudoscientists. All Doctors and Professors are equal in the eyes of Director Brent Leung.

Contorting words to misrepresent reality is what AIDS Deniers do. Some AIDS Deniers must distort reality to protect their bubble of denial. HIV infected persons who are living in an AIDS denial delusion appear in the film, such as the late Christine Maggiore. Also not surprising are the words of the professional AIDS Deniers, who simply repeat the denialist mantra heard so many times before. The mosaic is fascinating to those of us who study AIDS Denialism, reaffirming to those living in denial, and boring to tears for everyone else.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

AIDS Denialist Crank Convention: Gearing Up for Oakland

"They are all prostitutes, most of them, my collogues, to some degree, including myself. You have to be prostitutes to get money for your research. You are trained a little bit to be a prostitute. But some go all the way." Peter Duesberg

I don’t know about you, but I am getting pretty excited about the Rethinking AIDS conference. What a great opportunity to meet all of the AIDS Denialists and learn about their latest delusions! I am familiar with the venue – same place Peter Duesberg held his Aneuploidy Conference. Truth is the Aneuploidy meeting attempted to present some science. There were some real scientists there, albeit not very comfortably. The Rethinking AIDS Conference promises to be even better. Just look at what the AIDS Deniers are saying…

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Duesberg's Medical Hypotheses Article Makes the Case for Peer Review

Having just posted my simulated peer review of Peter Duesberg’s shameful and retracted article where he once again proclaims that HIV is harmless, I could not resist sharing this. The UK’s premiere debunker of medical fraud and Bad Science, Ben Goldacre, writes about Duesberg’s retracted article in his weekly Guardian column. Once again, Goldacre delivers a very insightful piece. By the way, if you have not read Ben’s book Bad Science get it now… The chapter on AIDS Denialism and Matthias Rath is a real gem. If you are ever in London and have a chance to hear Ben Goldacre lecture, don’t miss him. The guy is a genius.

UPDATE: New article on retracted paper at AIDS Beacon

Peer review is flawed but the best we've got
Ben Goldacre The Guardian, Saturday 12 September

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Peer Reviewing Peter Duesberg – REJECTED—RETRACTED—REJECTED Again

This summer’s saga of Peter Duesberg’s Medical Hypotheses retracted article should probably be put to rest. The sad story of this broken scientist has been told many times. Here though Duesberg reaches an all time low as he teams up with pseudoscientist Henry Bauer to yet again claim that HIV is harmless.

Duesberg and his long time accomplice David Rasnick along with Loch Ness Monster Scholar Henry Bauer published the article “HIV-AIDS hypothesis out of touch with South African AIDS – A new perspective” in the non-peer reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses. The article focused on the South African AIDS epidemic and research reported by Harvard scientist Dr. Pride Chigwedere in the respected Journal of AIDS. Duesberg disputes the death of over 300,000 South Africans and 30,000 babies unnecessary infected with HIV. Duesberg and Rasnick have a stake in denying AIDS in South Africa because they advised former President Thabo Mbeki to deny AIDS and delay HIV treatments. Duesberg’s ideas were so flawed that the publisher, Elsevier Science, took the unusual step of retracting the article.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

New York Times Reviews AIDS Denialist Crockumentary 'House of Numbers'

AIDS Seen From a Different Angle
Published: September 4, 2009

Couched as a “personal journey” through the history of H.I.V. and AIDS, “House of Numbers” is actually a weaselly support pamphlet for AIDS denialists. Trafficking in irresponsible inferences and unsupported conclusions, the filmmaker Brent Leung offers himself as suave docent through a globe-trotting pseudo-investigation that should raise the hackles of anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the basic rules of reasoning.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Magic Johnson Turns 50 and He Thanks HIV Treatments

Where were you November 7 1991?

I know precisely where I was.

My student Tricia Hunter and I had just finished collecting AIDS attitude and behavior surveys in the Chicago transit system. We had been conducting a behavioral surveillance study with a cross section of the city. That is, we were asking the good people of Chicago to fill out surveys as they waited for their train.

I came home that evening to find Magic Johnson on the news. Earvin Magic Johnson, arguably the most recognized face in professional basketball, announced his retirement after testing HIV+.

I was in Chicago. Michael Jordon’s Chicago. The Champion Chicago Bull’s Chicago.

Perhaps with the exception of LA, no city could have been more stunned by Magic’s announcement than Chicago.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Goodbye Duesberg's and Ruggiero's Articles! Did You Ever Exist?

Over the past couple of months two AIDS Denialism articles were published in a journal called Medical Hypotheses. These papers surprised many of us because Medical Hypotheses was once a peer-reviewed medical journal that is printed by the world’s largest science publisher Elsevier. But it did not take much to notice that these papers were not peer reviewed.

The article “Aids denialism at the ministry of health” by Marco Ruggiero (seen here at the gates of UC Berkeley) was received by Medical Hypotheses on June 3, 2009 and was accepted on June 3, 2009. Hmmm, now that was fast. And the article “HIV-AIDS hypothesis out of touch with South African AIDS – A new perspective” by Peter H. Duesberg, Joshua M. Nicholson, David Rasnick, Christian Fiala, and Henry H. Bauer was received on June 9, 2009 and accepted on June 11, 2009. Obviously the Editor at least contemplated Duesberg’s article before accepting it. Just as obvious, neither paper underwent peer review.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

On the Brink of Denialism: Why Peter Duesberg is Wrong and David Crowe is a Liar

Here is a real gem.

Onnie Mary Phuthe, an HIV+ woman from Botswana, wrote to South African AIDS Denialist Anthony Brink to ask about the organization Rethinking AIDS. The exchange is posted at AIDS Myth Exposed.

Brink’s response reminds me of a conversation I had with him while he was in Berlin attending an AIDS Dissident's Conference. I asked Brink about Peter Duesberg and he replied that Duesberg was washed up – old hat. The new ideas in AIDS dissidence were coming from contemporary scientists like Etienne de Harven. That seemed remarkable seeing as Peter Duesberg is 73 years old and de Harven is even older at age 81! Ah, the new ideas of AIDS Denialism.

Yet, I often wondered what Anthony Brink felt deep down about Rethinking AIDS and the people I had come to know as North America’s leading AIDS Deniers. Brink after all is responsible for feeding AIDS Denialism to the suspicious intellectual and former South African President Thabo Mbeki – ultimately bringing 300,000 of his fellow countrymen and 30,000 babies to their unnecessary deaths. Now Anthony Brink gives us some insight through his reply to Onnie. It
humoursly shows the infighting among AIDS Deniers, especially the Perth People and Duesbergians. This is worth a read. But be ready, Anthony Brink is not thrifty with words.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Shooting a Moon at AIDS Denialism

Twenty-eight years after identifying the first cases of AIDS and 13 years since highly effective combinations of antiretroviral medications made HIV infection manageable, there are AIDS Deniers who actually believe HIV is a myth.

And 40 years since Neil Armstrong took man’s first step on the moon, there are people who still believe it was a hoax. AIDS Denial is just one of many types of denialism, all of which are bound together by mistrust and paranoia. Denialists universally expose cover ups and conspiracies in their effort to rewrite history. So here you go AIDS Denialists, meet your cousins the Lunar Landing Hoaxers.

Vocal Minority Insists It Was All Smoke and Mirrors
By JOHN SCHWARTZ, New York Times, July 13, 2009

They walk among us, seemingly little different from you or me. Most of the time, you would never know of their true nature — except that occasionally, they feel compelled to speak up.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Vito Mbeki?: AIDS denialism at the Italian Ministry of Health

A policy analysis raises the specter of AIDS Denialism in the Italian Health Ministry. The study examined official records and found numerous cases where an AIDS diagnosis is discussed independent of HIV infection.

The authors initially investigated epidemiological evidence regarding HIV infection and AIDS in Italy using only official data published by the Italian National Institute of Health (Istituto Superiore di Sanità) and by the Italian Ministry of Health (Ministero del Lavoro, della Salute e delle Politiche Sociali). The authors concluded that the Italian Ministry of Health appears to be convinced that HIV is not the [sole] cause of AIDS. The authors describe the serendipity of their findings:

“In the wake of the recent Nobel awards for Medicine, we wished to prepare an essay concerning the numbers of the AIDS epidemic in Italy and the efficacy of the Italian Ministry of Health’s policies to contain and fight the disease. We also wondered whether the Nobel awards could put an end to the polemics concerning the viral origin of AIDS with particular reference to the theses (often referred to as ‘AIDS denialism’) put forward by Prof. Duesberg et al. and Bauer. AIDS denialism refers to the views of a loosely connected group of individuals and organizations who deny that HIV is the cause of AIDS. To this end, a young student (MPG) preparing his bachelor’s thesis began to search the official documents of the Italian Ministry of Health ( and, after a thorough search, we came to a rather paradoxical conclusion: policies, guidelines, definitions and data provided for by the Italian Ministry of Health are indeed consistent with the hypothesis that AIDS could be independent of HIV infection.”
The authors go on to state: “according to the Ministry, AIDS can be diagnosed in the absence of signs of HIV infection; there is legal prohibition to communicate new HIV infections to referring physicians and Health Authorities as if HIV spread were not a threat to public health… no national registry of HIV infection is implemented; and AIDS is not classified among relevant infective diseases nor among infective diseases that are susceptible of control interventions; one fourth of pediatric AIDS cases is not imputable to mother–son transmission.”

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Speaking in Tongues": An Essay on AIDS Denial by John Boucher

I stood in the doorway waiting for ten minutes before I went back to see who he was talking to. I listened in the hall at the door to his office. I could hear him saying the names of his four brothers and one sister. I could hear him asking about snow and the vegetable garden. I heard him say, “Mama, I’ve got cancer.” I waited for Rex on our couch. We had picked it out as our third anniversary present to each other.

When Rex got off the phone he found me waiting for him on our couch. The couch we picked out / the couch we made love on / the couch we watched TV on / the couch we read to each other on / the couch we fought on / the couch we had our weekly check in with each other on / the couch we almost broke-up on / the couch I would wait on with my parents, to go to his funeral. The couch I finally had to throw out.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Justice After AIDS Denialism: Should There Be Prosecutions and Compensation?

By Nathan Geffen
published in Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes

Edward Mabunda died on April 9, 2003. At least another 600 people died of AIDS in South Africa that day.(1) Edward was just 36 years old. He left behind a wife and 3 children. He was also a leader in the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). He became an icon of the movement because of the fiery poetry that he recited to thousands of people. His poems urged former President Thabo Mbeki to make antiretrovirals (ARVs) available in South Africa’s public health system. He died because he could not obtain these life-saving medicines in time.(2)

From 1999 to 2007, Mbeki and his Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang obstructed and then undermined the implementation of highly active ARV treatment (HAART) and prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in the public health system. Two studies, conducted independently of each other, conservatively calculated that over 300,000 people died because of Mbeki’s AIDS denialist policies.(3–5) Edward Mabunda was one of them. These studies could not account for additional deaths due to the promotion of quackery, often with the health minister’s support. They also did not consider the number of infections that occurred because of the confusion generated by the insipid state-funded prevention campaign and the messages by some outspoken Mbeki supporters dismissing the link between sex and HIV infection.(6) The Mbeki era also fostered a profound mistrust of scientific medicine, the consequences of which also cannot be quantified.

What, if any, repercussions should be there for those responsible for this tragedy? The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to which South Africa is a signatory, defines the ‘‘intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population’’ as a crime against humanity.(7) President Mbeki did not execute people with guns or bombs, but he did have the power and responsibility to prevent several hundred thousand deaths. Yet, he and his health minister chose to ignore the scientific consensus and the vociferous demands of South African civil society groups like the TAC. Questioning scientific consensus is the prerogative of a political leader, but in this case, the consensus was overwhelming. Furthermore, dissent from the consensus, that is, the arguments of AIDS denialists, had been shown to be ludicrous long before Mbeki became president,(8) and the consequences of that dissent were always likely to be disastrous. Therefore, Mbeki must surely be held responsible for the disastrous aftermath of his policy choices.

This raises the possibility that he and Tshabalala-Msimang should be prosecuted. In 2003, the TAC laid a complaint of culpable homicide with the police against Tshabalala- Msimang.(9) The organization provided a detailed ‘‘docket’’ describing the evidence against her. The complaint was largely symbolic and part of a civil disobedience campaign that would ultimately change government policy. But perhaps, it is time to go beyond symbolism.

I am unaware of any other case in the history of the modern democratic state in which so many have died because political leaders willfully contradicted scientific advice. However, there have been instances in which political leaders have been successfully prosecuted for negligent behavior with far greater extenuating circumstances. For example, Edmond Herve, the former French health minister, was convicted for his role in the contamination of his country’s blood supply with HIV in the 1980s. Mbeki’s folly is in danger of being repeated: political leaders who use pseudoscientific arguments to deny the reality of global warming are also at risk being culpable of many deaths. Setting a precedent that will make politicians think twice before making this kind of error is an important reason to prosecute Mbeki and his advisors.

What about those who aided or failed to stop his and Tshabalala-Msimang’s policies? Alec Erwin, the Minister of Trade and Industry at the time, failed to take any of the steps available to him to bring down ARV prices and was consequently named as Tshabalala-Msimang’s coaccused in the TAC docket. The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health is responsible for oversight of the Health Department. Yet, its head, James Ngculu, failed to hold Tshabalala- Msimang to account for her actions. Only a handful of the hundreds of African National Congress Members of Parliament spoke out publicly against Mbeki’s policies. Only 1 provincial government, the Western Cape, implemented prevention of mother-to-child transmission and HAART programmes expeditiously. The premiers and health ministers of the other 8 provinces, for the most part, failed to do so.

Also, what about scientists like Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick who provided a veneer of scientific credibility for Mbeki’s views? Can Duesberg, the most prominent scientist to promote AIDS denialism, claim that the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression protect him from sanction? Or is his situation not analogous to a financial advisor who provides fraudulent information, except in Duesberg’s case, the misinformation is deadly? Rasnick is even more implicated. He was found by a South African court to have conducted an unlawful clinical trial when he teamed up with vitamin salesman Matthias Rath and others to provide multivitamin tablets as an alternative to HAART to people dying of AIDS.(10) He loudly supported and encouraged the South African government’s refusal to provide HAART. He usually signed his articles as a member of Mbeki’s notorious AIDS advisory panel that was convened in 2000 to create the impression that there was a genuine scientific controversy about the cause of AIDS.(11,12)

What about Matthias Rath himself or the hundreds of other charlatans who provided quack treatments for AIDS with impunity during Tshabalala-Msimang’s reign, despite legislation preventing the sale of unregistered medicines for viral infections? Hardly, any have been prosecuted. Rath, for example, has had a plethora of civil court rulings and regulatory body warnings and findings against him in Germany, the United Kingdom, United States, and South Africa.(13) But, despite breaching South Africa’s Medicines Act, for example, no criminal proceedings against him have been initiated.

There is also the question of compensation. Although it is too late for those who have died, surely their families are entitled to redress? Determining compensation would be extremely difficult of course. Over 2 million South Africans died of AIDS during Mbeki’s reign. It is impossible to determine precisely that 300,000 lives could have been saved. For 1 thing, many people died without ever being tested and their HIV statuses will never be known.
Nevertheless, at least some families would be able to make unequivocal claims that 1 or more of their members died directly as a consequence of the state’s failure to provide medicines.

Answering the above questions will be difficult and controversial. They raise profound legal and moral predicaments. Ideally, the South African government should establish an independent Commission of Inquiry whose purpose would be to provide recommendations on what, if any, action should be taken against those responsible for the country’s AIDS denialist policies. Former deputy-health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who was fired by Mbeki arguably for her anti-denialist position, has already suggested this.(14) The commission should also consider the issue of compensation. South Africa’s new president, Jacob Zuma, has the power to institute it. This would be an excellent way for him to demonstrate that he is serious about accountability for the response to the HIV epidemic. Surely such a process is the minimum that the victims of AIDS denialism, their families and friends are entitled to? Edward Mabunda would have thought so.

1. Actuarial Society of South Africa. ASSA 2003 [Internet]. Available at: Accesed January 8, 2008.
2. TAC. TAC newsletter on the death of Edward Mabunda [Internet]. April 9, 2003. [cited January 5, 2009]. Available at:
3. Chigwedere P, Seage G, Gruskin S, et al. Estimating the lost benefits of antiretroviral drug use in South Africa [Internet]. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr. 2008. [cited January 5, 2009]. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.
4. Nattrass N. AIDS and the Scientific Governance of Medicine in Post-Apartheid South Africa [Internet]. African Affairs. 2008;107:157–176. [cited September 11, 2008]. Available at:
5. Bourne DE, Thompson M, Brody LL, et al. Emergence of a peak in early infant mortality due to HIV/AIDS in South Africa [Internet]. AIDS. 2009;23:101–106. [cited January 7, 2009]. Available at:
6. TAC. The Citizen’s publicity for AIDS denialists is irresponsible [Internet]. 2006. [cited January 12, 2009]. Available at:
7. International Criminal Court. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court [Internet]. 2002 July 1. [cited January 5, 2009]. Available at: http://
8. NIAID. The Relationship between the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome [Internet]. 1995 September. [cited February 6, 2009]. Available at:
9. TAC. TAC Civil Disobedience Campaign [Internet]. March 20, 2003. [cited January 5, 2009]. Available at: 2003/ns20_03_2003.htm#Docket.
10. Zondi J. Judgment in TAC and SAMAv. Rath and Others [Internet]. 2008. Available at:
11. Rapid Responses for Shelton et al. BMJ. 328:891–893 [Internet]. [cited January 14, 2009]. Available at: 7444/891.
12. Government of South Africa. Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel Report [Internet]. March 2001. [cited January 13, 2008]. Available at:
13. TAC. The Wrongs of Matthias Rath [Internet]. [cited January 7, 2009]. Available at:
14. Karrim Q. Calls for Aids TRC. Mail & Guardian. Available at: Accessed April 27,2009.
Correspondence to: Nathan Geffen, MSc, Treatment Action Campaign, 2nd Floor, Westminster House, Cape Town 8001, South Africa (e-mail:
Copyright _ 2009 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

AIDS denial: A lethal delusion

ON 27 December 2008, a well-heeled 52-year-old woman died in a Los Angeles hospital. Her death certificate describes a body riddled with opportunistic infections typical of the late stages of AIDS. Christine Maggiore had tested HIV positive 16 years earlier, but she had shunned ART, the antiretroviral therapy that stops HIV replicating and prevents AIDS.

This was not the first time a death in Maggiore's family had made headlines: five years earlier her 3-year-old daughter Eliza Jane had died. The autopsy described a chronically ill little girl who was underweight, under-height, and had encephalitis and pneumonia - all AIDS-related. When pregnant, Maggiore had again rejected ART and she had breastfed Eliza Jane, another way of transmitting the virus.

Why, in 21st-century California, would a middle-class woman and her young daughter die like this when there is tried-and-tested treatment for their illness? The answer lies in a bizarre medical conspiracy theory that says AIDS is not caused by HIV infection (see Five myths about HIV and AIDS).
[UPDATE: further discussion of the New Scientist artcle is posted at]
It is tempting to dismiss the so-called AIDS denialism movement out of hand, but it has a strong internet presence, with a plethora of websites and blogs that can mislead the unwary. While the movement has lately suffered some significant blows to its credibility, it has in the recent past wielded extraordinary influence, especially in southern Africa, the centre of the world's AIDS epidemic. "Denialism has been relegated to the fringes of the internet, but it isn't of no consequence," says John Moore, an immunologist at Weill Cornell Medical College, Ithaca, New York, and one of the world's foremost AIDS researchers. "It can still cost the lives of unsuspecting people."

The origins of the AIDS denialism movement can be traced back to 1987, four years after the discovery of HIV. Peter Duesberg was then a renowned researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who had shown that some cancers were triggered by retroviruses. In March that year, Duesberg performed an about-face, publishing an article in which he questioned his original finding that retroviruses caused cancer, and also whether HIV (another retrovirus, although not one that he had studied) caused AIDS.

At the time, HIV science was in its infancy, and Duesberg was not the only mainstream scientist to speculate whether AIDS was actually caused by lifestyle factors such as taking drugs, for example. Indeed, New Scientist published Duesberg's manifesto of dissent in 1988.

"Duesberg did get laypeople's attention, and they, in turn, got him scientific attention," says University of California sociologist, Steven Epstein, author of Impure Science, a book on AIDS research. "Credibility was cycled back and forth."

As the clinical and epidemiological evidence linking HIV with AIDS accrued, however, support for denialism among mainstream scientists fell away. In the mid-1990s came the clincher. Cocktails of ART were found to halt the replication of HIV and reverse and prevent the development of AIDS. By the end of 1996, doctors in the west were witnessing the "Lazarus effect": AIDS patients who had been mortally ill were rising from their beds, putting on jackets and ties, and reporting for work.

By rights the denialism movement should have died out there and then. Yet it persisted. Not one of the denialists was a researcher studying AIDS or HIV - they simply critiqued the work of those who did. Much of the movement's output has been journalistic rather than scientific, spawning numerous articles, books, films (often self-published or self-produced), and lately websites. Tellingly, most of the studies they cite are quite old, reflecting the fact that mainstream support has long since died out.

Ask what the denialists do believe, however, and there is no consensus (see Five myths about HIV and AIDS). Some hark back to the early idea that AIDS in gay men is caused by amyl nitrite use; others say the cause is ART itself - although no one can explain why AIDS arose before ART was developed.

Some denialists accept that HIV may be present in those with AIDS, but claim it is just another opportunistic infection, rather than the cause. Others say, incredibly, that HIV has never been proven to exist at all.

Perhaps the most staggering of their beliefs, though, is that everyone else has got it so wrong. Denialists claim the scientific community cannot afford to admit their error because too many reputations and too many research grants are now at stake. Once ART was developed, the multibillion-dollar drugs industry had a vast investment at stake too.

It is certainly true that the scientific peer-review process can slow down the acceptance of new theories. And pharmaceutical companies hardly have a spotless record either. Yet the clinical and epidemiological evidence for the viral cause of AIDS is overwhelming, from virologists who see HIV under their microscopes, to doctors the world over who witness AIDS patients begin ART and make dramatic recoveries.

Denialism in the west continued to limp along, attracting a following of conspiracy theorists, attention seekers, peddlers of pseudoscience and HIV patients in denial. The movement's leaders vary in their credibility. Duesberg's most vocal supporter is David Rasnick, a former biochemist who makes much of his research background, as he once studied a group of enzymes called proteases. HIV possesses a protease enzyme, and protease inhibitors represent a key class of ART drugs. However Rasnick only worked on rat proteases, never on HIV's.

Then there is Henry Bauer, a retired chemistry and life sciences professor at Virginia State University in Petersburg, who edits the Journal of Scientific Exploration. This publishes research on such topics as alien abductions and telepathy. Before dabbling in virology, Bauer was a leading authority on the existence of the Loch Ness monster.

Leading AIDS denialist Henry Bauer is a former expert on the Loch Ness monster


The effects of AIDS denialism in Africa are no joke, however. In 2000, as the movement was rapidly losing all credibility, South African president Thabo Mbeki asked some of the leading denialists to sit on an advisory council to guide his response to the epidemic. On their advice he did everything in his power to resist ART use in his country.

Mbeki felt the mainstream western view that AIDS was caused by a sexually transmitted infection reflected racist beliefs that Africans were promiscuous. Western science, Mbeki believed, was blind to an obvious cause of immune deficiency in Africa: poverty.

It wouldn't be the first time. A century ago TB became endemic among black, but not white, South Africans, leaving western scientists flummoxed. Some pondered a genetic explanation, while overlooking the obvious - in white-ruled cities black people lived in the crowded conditions that encourage the spread of TB. In other words, blacks were falling ill as a result of white domination. Mbeki argued that the same thing was happening again. AIDS was simply a name for the diseases of poverty that had been legion in Africa since the days of colonial rule.

Mbeki was forced out last year - although not because of his denialism - and South Africa's new president, Jacob Zuma, supports ART. But immense damage has already been done. Last year, a study found that if Mbeki's government had provided HIV treatment, there would have been 365,000 fewer premature deaths in South Africa (Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, vol 49, p 410). The legacy of Mbeki's denialism might still have an influence on the treatment decisions of many HIV-positive South Africans.

In Australia there is now the "Perth Group", led by Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos, whose science qualification is an undergraduate degree in nuclear physics. She appeared as an expert witness in 2006 for an Australian man appealing his conviction for failing to tell his sexual partners he was HIV-positive. Papadopulos-Eleopulos stood up in court and claimed that HIV does not exist. The man lost his case, however, with the judge noting that Papadopulos-Eleopulos had "no formal qualifications in medicine, virology, immunology, or any other medical disciplines... Her opinions lack any credibility."

Along with Christine Maggiore's death, you might think that these events would significantly weaken the denialists' case. Yet it would be premature to predict the movement's demise.

Consider that in the US, two small surveys have shown startlingly high numbers of people - around 1 in 4 - who question whether HIV causes AIDS. This probably reflects lack of education about the virus, rather than active denialism, since there is no evidence that people are seeking alternative AIDS treatment in large numbers. It does suggest, however, a troubling lack of communication between mainstream medicine and ordinary people. It is precisely such gaps in communication that internet quacks and conspiracy theorists can exploit.

Gaps in communication between mainstream medicine and ordinary people can be exploited by internet quacks and conspiracy theorists

Seth Kalichman, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, who carried out one of the surveys, has recently published Denying AIDS, a book about the movement. "My perception is that there is certainly a lot more mischief, like books and documentaries shown at film festivals," he says.

For some, no amount of evidence will overturn their entrenched beliefs. Maggiore blamed her daughter's death on an allergic reaction to antibiotics. For a long time she publicly cited her own good health as proof that HIV does not cause AIDS.

It is unpleasant to imagine what went through her mind last year as her own health worsened. She apparently continued to refuse the potentially lifesaving ART. Perhaps that is no surprise. To accept the drugs she had denied Eliza Jane would have been tantamount to accepting responsibility for her daughter's death.

To accept the drugs she had denied Eliza Jane would have meant taking responsibility for her child's death. And that's something that anyone would want to stay in denial about.

Note New Scientist article by Jonny Steinberg is the author of Three Letter Plague: A young man's journey through a great epidemic (Vintage), published in the US as Sizwe's Test

My year as an AIDS denialist

"For a year I had two lives," says Seth Kalichman, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs and editor of the journal AIDS and Behavior. "It was pretty disturbing."

Kalichman was researching his book, Denying AIDS, which was published in the US earlier this year. The book charts the development of AIDS denialism into its current incarnation as a ragbag of eccentric scientists, crusading conspiracy theorists and HIV patients in denial.

Kalichman wanted to get close to the denialists - and that meant becoming one of them. "I knew that they would never talk to me as Seth Kalichman, the AIDS scientist," he says. So Kalichman became public health student "Joe" (a nickname he sometimes uses).

The denialist movement has a strong internet presence. As Joe, Kalichman started posting on websites and blogs. "I would pose questions, and they indoctrinated me into denialism," he recalls. "There were times when I felt I was being groomed."

His next step was to get Joe on an internet list of "AIDS dissidents". Denialists often cite this document, which currently has 2651 international signatories, as a list of scientists who dispute that HIV causes AIDS. In fact, only some of those listed are scientists, and even fewer are biologists - although alternative therapists often crop up.

As a budding denialist who was part of the medical establishment, Joe would no doubt have been seen as a great catch. Once he passed a brief email cross-examination, his name went up.

"That list is a roster of who can be trusted," Kalichman discovered. Joe now gained access to, and regularly chatted with, other prominent denialists, including the Canadian journalist David Crowe.

Kalichman began to find his double life surreal. "I was going to meetings at the National Institutes of Health during the day and in the evenings blogging with David Crowe," he recalls. But Kalichman wanted to meet denialists face to face. He heard that the movement's founder and star scientist Peter Duesberg was holding an invitation-only cancer conference.


Duesberg was once widely renowned for his discovery of the first cancer gene, but he is now derided for his eccentric views on HIV. He works in a small, privately funded laboratory where he researches his outlandish theories of cancer.

Joe's status as an AIDS dissident won him an invite. He felt nervous his subterfuge would be discovered, either by inadvertently using his real name or through his appearance. "I had been telling them I was a student, and I'm 48 years old," he says.

Still, Kalichman got through the door and talked to other attendees, including Duesberg's right-hand man David Rasnick. Rasnick seemed suspicious but did not get him thrown out.

Finally, Kalichman met Duesberg himself, and it made him revise some of his opinions about the man. Kalichman had previously wondered if Duesberg's stated views could be genuine. "He looked me dead in the eyes and said this is not an infectious disease," he says. "I have no question that he really believes this. He ignores the science to retain this belief."

Why? In Kalichman's opinion: "In that very small circle of AIDS denialism, he's a rock star. He was the focus of attention the whole time and he was very comfortable with that."

After the conference Kalichman abandoned his double life. He has no doubt that his time spent as Joe gave him unique insight into the denialists' world. "For Peter Duesberg, he's the big fish in the small pond. For people with HIV, denialism protects them from having to face that fact. Our beliefs are a substantial part of our psychological survival."

Note: Interview in New Scientist by Clare Wilson

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