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.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Power of Ideas by Ben Goldacre

The Power of Ideas
by Ben Goldacre published in Ariane Sherine's book There's Probably No God: The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, with all contributor proceeds donated to the Terrance Higgins Trust, UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity.

I don’t mean to fill your Christmas with AIDS and diarrhoea, but there is something awe-inspiring about the power of ideas alone to do great good, and great evil. Diarrhoea will be our happy ending. AIDS will not.

There are the cheap shots. Africa is filled with miracle-cure peddlers: the Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, claims he can personally cure HIV, AIDS and asthma using magic and charms. The South African government fell for a cure built around nothing more than industrial solvent.

It’s all too easy to feel smug, and to forget that we have our own cultural idiosyncrasies. There’s compelling evidence, after all, that needle-exchange programmes reduce the spread of HIV, but the strategy has been rejected, time and again, in favour of ‘Just say no.’

And then there is the Church. In May 2009, as I write this chapter, the Congolese Bishops’ Conference have triumphantly announced that they ‘say no to condoms!’ This idiocy – they don’t deserve to be humoured – goes to the heart of the Catholic faith. In March, on his flight to Cameroon, Pope Benedict XVI explained that condoms worsen the AIDS problem, and he has been supported, in the past year alone, by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster. ‘It is quite ridiculous to go on about AIDS in Africa and condoms, and the Catholic Church,’ says O’Connor. ‘I talk to priests who say, “My diocese is flooded with condoms and there is more AIDS because of them.”’

Some have been imaginative in promoting their message. In 2007, Archbishop Francisco Chimoio of Mozambique announced that European condom manufacturers are deliberately infecting condoms with HIV to spread AIDS in Africa. It is estimated that one in six people in Mozambique is HIV positive. Cardinal Alfonso L√≥pez Trujillo of Colombia famously claimed that the HIV virus can pass through tiny holes in the rubber of condoms. ‘The condom is a cork,’ said Bishop Demetrio Fernandez of Spain, ‘and not always effective.’ In 2005 Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explained that scientific research has never proven that condoms ‘immunise against infection’. He’s right, I suppose. No wonder the Pope has proclaimed that ‘The most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/AIDS is in fact the Catholic Church and her institutions.’

Development charities funded by US Christian groups refuse to engage with birth control, and any suggestion of abortion, even in countries where being in control of your own fertility could mean the difference between success and failure in life, is met with a cold, pious stare. These moral principles are so deeply entrenched that under President Bush, the US Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief insisted that every recipient of international aid money must sign a declaration expressly promising not to have any involvement with sex workers.
Equally, there are heartbreaking tales of Westerners with a whiff of science going into the developing world. Matthias Rath, for example, is a German vitamin-pill salesman, who moved into South Africa five years ago, taking out full-page adverts in national newspapers: ‘The answer to the AIDS epidemic is here,’ he announced. The answer, of course, was a vitamin pill.

He explained that antiretroviral medications were a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry to kill patients and make money. ‘Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned?’ he asked.
And he took his ideas to the right place. In South Africa alone, 300,000 people die every year from the virus; that’s one every two minutes. There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans, and more than half of all pregnant women are HIV positive. And South Africa was headed by President Thabo Mbeki, an ‘AIDS dissident’, as they prefer to be known. In the most crucial period of the AIDS epidemic, the South African government variously claimed that HIV was not the cause of AIDS, and that antiretroviral medications were not an effective treatment. They refused to roll out effective antiretroviral medication, they refused to accept gifts of money to give out ARV treatment, and they refused gifts of the pills themselves.

Mbeki’s health minister would appear on television to talk up the risks of antiretroviral medication, and talk down the benefits, promoting garlic and sweet African potato as effective treatments for AIDS. The South African government’s stall at the 2006 World AIDS Conference in Toronto was described by other delegates as ‘the salad stall’, because that’s all it contained. It has been estimated that between 2000 and 2005, around 350,000 people with AIDS died unnecessarily in South Africa as a result of these ideas. That’s quite a death toll, for an idea.
How does this happen? Perhaps AIDS is just too big to think about clearly. Twenty-five million people have died of it so far, three million in the past year, but these figures are so vast that it’s hard to mount an appropriate emotional response to them, if any.

Perhaps the undeniable crimes of the pharmaceutical industry make conspiracy theories about their effective products believable, lending them a kind of poetic truth. They do, after all, adhere to cruel and murderous pricing policies, and only this year, clinical trial regulations were explicitly changed so that clinical trials conducted by American companies on people in the developing world are no longer subject to the same high ethical standards as those conducted on US citizens.

These companies, of course, are not all bad, just as there are many good people in the Catholic Church (the overwhelming majority, I would imagine). And a cheap, single dose of the drug Nevirapine, we should remember, has been shown to reduce the risk of a pregnant mother passing on HIV to her baby by half.

But we are mistaken if we imagine that medicine moves forward through technology. In the past that was probably true: antibiotics, intensive care units – everything we associate with medicine. Now the pace of medical academic discovery has changed, and the power lies with ideas.

So let me tell you about diarrhoea. What are our two biggest weapons against torrential watery stool? One is telling people to wash their hands; it’s been demonstrated that this can halve the spread of diarrhoea, and so it could save a million lives a year. The other is even simpler, and even more powerful: telling people to rehydrate, using water with added sugar and salt. This is new, it has been carefully researched and refined, and despite being a simple idea, which anyone can follow, this meme has caused deaths from diarrhoea to plummet, saving at least fifty million lives since its universal adoption in the 1980s.

We can go higher. A hundred million people died in the last century from smoking. Around a billion are expected to die this century (because the cigarette industry has been so successful in China). But equally, tens of millions of lives will be saved, because Richard Doll and colleagues diligently collected and analysed data on the smoking habits and deaths of a few thousand doctors fifty years ago to pull out just one key fact: smoking kills.

With this idea, with handwashing, with rehydration fluid, and with the methods and principles that gave us these ideas, a small group of softly spoken saints have saved more people than you would meet in a thousand lifetimes.

The royalties from this book will go to Terrence Higgins Trust. I have seen the work they do up close, working in an HIV clinic in South London. THT offer practical support, but the most powerful work they do, to my mind, is in sharing information, destigmatising, informing, preventing infections and improving treatment regimes. Through the application of common sense, wit, compassion and evidence, they save lives. This is the future of medicine.

Oh, and it’s eight teaspoons of sugar and one of salt in a litre of water, if you ever need to know.

Merry Xmas.


  1. Hmm sounds like a God Denier to me, dangerous animals those. Everyone knows that the "Consensus" of human beings including many top scientists and even Nobel Peace Prize winners have agreed that a higher being exists. There are literally tens of thousands of papers, parchments, papyrus, clay tables and books that Prove the existence of God. There are many proven examples of Gods power and magnificence. We can indirectly prove the existence of God through miracles. We have thousands of published Iconographs of God.

    The Eastern Mystic Blot = Proof of God
    PCR = Praise Christ Reborn
    ELISA = 2nd cousin to God, sister of Job.
    Mystic Load = Exposure to God and can be used to calculate your time to spirituality.

    You mainly attack Gods existence based on cherry picking data from earlier works on God. We have learnt a lot more about God recently and you should restrict your reading to circa 100 BC.

    "There is nothing to debate, God Exists, and anyone who disagrees is a moron not worthy of this blog space, we will crush them one by one"

    Just change a few words and it should all sound only too familiar to you all.

    I take it Seth that you are a God Rethinker? or is that a God Denialist? Do you not accept the "Consensus" in this instance?

    Then again you probably subscribe to Scientology instead.

    And try try not to confuse satire with one of your pseudo psychological diagnoses. I am interested though in what diagnoses you give to a person that presents their alter ego as a talking canine on the Web?

    Q. You know what they call someone who can't get to med school and study Psychiatry due to poor grades?

    A. A psychologist.

  2. Hey Seth
    You know that section in your book, The Nazi Thing... too bad this was not out before you wrote Denying AIDS... They definitely have a Nazi Fixation.

  3. Whoa there Reverend Moron.. who said I was an Atheist? I forgave God years ago for creating stupid people... Flaws like Duesberg, Rasnick and your other heroes must be part of the grand plan..
    Crazy is as Crazy does.

  4. Why do they call it intelligent design when only stupid people buy into it?

  5. "...says O’Connor. ‘I talk to priests who say, “My diocese is flooded with condoms and there is more AIDS because of them.”’
    What a typical hit and run statement with no supporting evidence. He did not even supply an anecdote as to how his twisted little mind could possibly blame condoms for making "AIDS worse".
    My theory: If the "diocese is flooded with condoms" then they are not being used and THAT is why AIDS is spreading! Forget "just say no".
    How about using the word NO in a better way?
    "NO glove, NO love"!!

  6. This statement makes me hate the Bush Administration even more...and I did not think that was possible:
    "under President Bush, the US Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief insisted that every recipient of international aid money must sign a declaration expressly promising not to have any involvement with sex workers."
    How can a government possibly be so egomanical to speak for all their people in such a way?

    OR perhaps I am mistaken. Maybe the Bush Admin meant that the heads of the gov't had to stop seeing sex workers. At least in the U.S. it is the Senators and Congressmen and Governors who are always entrenched in some pathetic sex scandal!!

  7. Keep 'em rolling in Seth, you always manage to give me a laugh. The main difference between us is you take all this crap seriously.

    If I could be serious for a minute, what's with the Nazi thing all the time? The ONLY sites I've seen that on are orthodox, who has the fixation? And please explain to me how that fits in with any of this apart from being throth and bubble.

    Must go now, have important toe nails to trim.

    Now pop a prozac and let the dogs out so they can bark at the fence again.

  8. Why use condoms?

    Dr.Padian already showed that HIV is not transmitted sexually (at least by heteros), and that condoms are unnecessary.

    Nevertheless, the absence of seroincident infection over the course of the study cannot be entirely attributed to significant behavior change. No transmission occured among the 25 percent of couples who did not use condoms consistently at their last follow-up nor among the 47 couples who intermittently practiced unsafe sex during the entire duration of follow-up. (Padian, pg 356.)

  9. It is true about the Bush policies Todd...
    In fact, Brazil refused US support because of the crazy provision. All of that is behind us... at least for now.

    I think the icons of AIDS Denialismn are a joke...if you read Denying AIDS you will see that... Duesberg, Rasnick, Bauer, the Perthies, Culshaw..the wholelot of them... make me laugh...

    It is those who listen to their crap that I take serious. Like when Rasnick the Psycho says for people who test HIV+ to 'Fergit it'. People who think he has a half of sane brain and any resemblance to a scientist (or Santa) may actually listen to him.

    That is what Denying AIDS and this blog are all about... Letting people know who they really are and what they are really saying.

    The Nazi posting at YouTube is from AIDS Deniers... so thanks for pointing that out. If you want to know my observations about Duesberg's German should get a copy of Denying AIDS... starting a whole new year of royalties to buy HIV meds in Africa...I appreciate your support.

  10. I wake up every morning, stretch, and thank god I'm an atheist.

  11. Is Bill really as big as a moron as he appears to be, or is he just cracking some kind of perverse joke? The myth that the "Padian paper" proves HIV is not heterosexually transmissible has been debunked hundreds of times on this and other Blogs. Perhaps Bill just cannot read/comprehend, or perhaps he sees the facts as being an attack on the quasi-religious position he and his fellow denialists take as an act of faith. I suspect the latter, because AIDS denialism is all about blind belief in the face of facts, which is how religious cults tend to operate.

  12. "who said I was an atheist?"

    If you are not an atheist, why are you not an atheist?

  13. Forget that the Padian Study has been debunked over and over...even by Dr. Padian herself. I wonder why the denialists act as if the Padian study is the only study of heterosexual transmission out there? Yeah it was long and included lots of folks, but science is not built on one, single, definitive study (as Clark Baker keeps insisting).
    Stop it with the Padian Study already! Pull your heads out and diversify your reading material!

  14. Forgive me for asking, but how many of the 175 patients in Padian's prospective study contracted HIV?

    The Answer is Zero -- why is this so vexing?

  15. Clearest factual statement of the new year:

    The DATA from the Padian Study showed no seroconversions after 6 years of sex.

    Draw your own conclusions.

  16. The telling comment from John Moore is that the Padian study has been debunked on this and many other blogs, a peer reviewed published paper would perhaps serve as better scientific evidence.

  17. Bill,
    The Padian study did not follow 175 discordant couples for 6 years. This was the longest follow up. The average follow up was a few months. The majority of couples were either abstinent or practising safe sex by the end of follow-up. There is nothing vexing about the Padian study. However, the continual misreprentation of the study by Denialists on the other hand is troubling.

    During the asymptomatic stage of infection (as distinct from the initial acute infection) the probability of transmission per contact is extremely low. This is very, very, very good news. It means that it is very simple to reduce the transmission of the virus to virtually zero with awareness, education and safer sex.

  18. Chris "Keno Kid" Noble,

    You can strain mightily to explain away the data all you want, but the data is the data.

    And, you should stop LYING about it, since 25% of the subjects weren't practicing "safe sex"

    Read carefully and slowly:

    Nevertheless, the absence of seroincident infection over the course of the study cannot be entirely attributed to significant behavior change. No transmission occured among the 25 percent of couples who did not use condoms consistently at their last follow-up nor among the 47 couples who intermittently practiced unsafe sex during the entire duration of follow-up.

  19. Bill, read the study before you accuse me of lying. I have told you several times that I did not author the "Keno" paper. I assume you keep on referring to this paper as an attempt to embarrass me. The only thing you are achieving is a demonstration of your dishonesty.

    At the end of follow-up (which was on average much less than 6 years) 74% were consistently using condoms and 14.5% were abstinent (see table 3). 97% of the behavioral changes occurred befoe the first follow-up. In most mathematical circles 88.5% is considered a majority. Perhaps in Denialistan things are different.

    If you want to read more about Nancy Padian's research then read this paper:
    J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr. 1993 Sep;6(9):1043-8.
    Prevention of heterosexual transmission of human immunodeficiency virus through couple counseling.

  20. Chris,
    Sadly Bill will not read the paper nor will he admit to being wrong. He will not, even for a moment, consider the implications of his source's lying/misrepresentation of this paper. He will change the topic, misquote, ignore the correction or goalpost shift and then conveniently push away all doubts about why his sources would have to lie about papers to support their views and what it says about their credibility. Denial at its best.