Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy

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Friday, May 1, 2009

AIDS 'Denialists' Jeopardizing Treatment For Sufferers

April 29, 2009

For about two decades, it has been considered as fact that HIV causes AIDS, but there continue to be activists who say otherwise.

They've been brushed off too often as crackpots, says Seth Kalichman, who teaches social psychology at the University of Connecticut and is the editor of the journal AIDS and Behavior. As a result, those in the small but vocal minority have been able to push their views to a dangerous level. In his recently published book "Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience and Human Tragedy" (Copernicus Books, $25), Kalichman looks at the loose community that continues to question years of scientific research that points to the human immunodeficiency virus as the cause of AIDS. They often refer to themselves as "AIDS dissidents," but Kalichman and other critics use the more charged term of "AIDS denialists."
One of the things that has allowed the denialists to gain traction, he says, are the few among them who have genuine science credentials on their résumés

Among the first to question the prevailing wisdom about AIDS was Peter Duesberg, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. He was among the first to identify and map the cancer-causing gene, though he may now be better known for his controversial views on AIDS treatment. He has stated that lifestyle and the very drugs used to treat AIDS are the cause of the disease.

Earlier this decade, Duesberg's theories had spread to the government of South Africa, where former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang rejected conventional medicine to treat AIDS patients in favor of a nutritional program that included garlic and beets. A Harvard study last year concluded that the AIDS policies of South Africa's then-president Thabo Mbeki resulted in the premature deaths of about 365,000 AIDS sufferers in the country.

At its peril, Kalichman says, the medical establishment has refused to engage the denialists in debate. "We have figured that if we ignore them, they will go away," he says.

But that strategy doesn't work in the Internet era. For instance, if you do a Google search for "cause of AIDS," the first entry is an essay supporting Duesberg's theory, from a website that bills itself as "rethinking AIDS."

"They've disrupted charity auctions," he says of the denialists. "It's a real threat, and it's all happening at a time when there is a lot of real excitement, and Obama has reignited awareness about AIDS."

As a result of the AIDS denialists' persistence, he says, many infected with the virus — especially those less educated — have refused conventional treatment. Regardless of what kind of reaction "Denying AIDS" gets among AIDS researchers, he says his main priority is getting the right information "to the people who should be most aware."

Kalichman is donating all of the book's royalties to the Family Treatment Fund administered by Massachusetts General Hospital and be used for antiretroviral medications for people with HIV/AIDS in Africa.

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