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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Friday, October 15, 2010

AIDS Denialism in South Africa: An Update (and book review)

by Ashraf Grimwooda
a Kheth'Impilo, Management, Cape Town, South Africa
published in the journal AIDS Care, Oct 9, 2010

South Africa has had the largest global HIV epidemic for close to two decades. The rule of democracy since 1994 did little to slow the exponential growth of this epidemic. The new leadership focusing all attention on matters of state-like economic disparity, poverty and unemployment amongst the previously disadvantaged, ignoring the warning threats of the oncoming plague of HIV by people like Peter Doyle. This was despite the National AIDS Convention of South Africa’s resolution reached by the ‘‘government in exile’’ and other civil society leadership in 1992, Maputo, to address the epidemic in a focused and urgent manner as soon as democracy is restored. Civil society was expectant, waiting for a response.

The then incoming Minister of Health Dr Nkosasana Zuma appeared to have a plan but soon she focused
on getting her anti-tobacco legislation through parliament, which she did very successfully. The extravagant waste of meagre resources on poorly thought through communication strategies on HIV prevention, as in this case, Sarafina II, unsettled civil society. This was exacerbated by the reluctance to institute AZT to prevent ‘‘mother-to-child’’ as undertaken by Thailand, a country with a lower GDP. The inappropriate support from government for the untested organic solvent Virodene as a major HIV treatment breakthrough, prior to any authorised research ethics committee or Medicine Control Council’s approval met with a huge public outcry resulting in the removal of a prominent professor of pharmacology, who refused to evaluate unethical data of this ‘‘research’’, from the MCC Board by the Minister. Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang replaced Dr Nkosasana Zuma as the new minister of health bringing with her a renewed sense of hope as she had supported the use of zidovudine in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission while in the Ministry of Justice, civil society needing a sense of hope in a country where there was the ever-escalating HIV antenatal survey figures. The country’s leadership was just not taking HIV seriously. Here was the ray of hope we were waiting for _ access to zidovudine for pregnant mothers, maybe there was the possibility of at least reducing mother-to-child transmission using evidence-based medicine.

Then in October 1999, I received a call while overseas from a journalist asking if I had heard that President Mbeki was questioning the science on the efficacy of zidovudine after having read counter arguments on the web. Back home there was a mad scrambling by civil servants to get evidence from sites where zidovudine was being used as to the adverse events and non-efficacy of this intervention. Soon in early 2000 this escalated into the questions from the President as to the causal link between HIV and AIDS, the specificity of the HIV antibody tests, the high rates of HIV positivity being a consequence of false or mis-readings due to the high rates of TB, that condoms were not effective against viruses like HIV, if they do exist, as the pores in the rubber latex were large enough to allow the passage of these viruses. The Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel was then setup to answer these questions, with a strong bias towards the denialist lobby, effectively stalling access to treatment and mother-to-child prevention for another four years. This had the greatest impact on the uninsured and unemployed who could not access any treatment unless through treatment trails undertaken by academic hospitals. Those wealthy enough to purchase antiretrovirals locally, or able to access treatment overseas were able to keep themselves alive from 1996 be that at a huge personal financial outlay. 

Despite the lack of support from the leadership, civil society lobbied and were able to move the Ministry of Health to developing the comprehensive Plan for HIV Treatment access which was adopted by Cabinet in November 2003 for the countrywide implementation. This also resulted in a significant drop in the cost of treatment further improving access to treatment for those insured. The President in the meanwhile removed himself from the ‘‘cause’’ to address the impact of HIV and AIDS. The schizophrenic approach from the Ministry of Health, where on the one hand antiretroviral treatment was being rolled out, reluctantly in places, and on the other the full commitment and support of untested ‘‘natural’’ therapies like beetroot, garlic and ubajane to name a few, resulted in a confused and somewhat patchy response to treatment rollout, negatively impacting on staff and patients alike. Some patients opted to stop or delay treatment with dire consequences.

Seth Kalichman’s
Denying AIDS places these events into an international context quite successfully, pulling together the global network of denialists. Why did South Africa chose the path of denialism at this most critical stage where the epidemic was still in its acceleration phase is not clear. Was the agenda for political gain, financial or corporate support or was this due to a deep and private fear of knowing of one’s own risk and fear of the possibility of being positive? Was there a more sinister Malthusian agenda or a genuine mistrust of orthodox science? The analysis of techniques used through denialist journalism makes for interesting reading, especially the exploitation of individual fear and creating confusion through the morphing of science into technobabble. The author makes a strong link between the more common conspiracy theories and denialism and highlights some of the more prominent scientific minds supporting these. Why though begs to be asked, and is, but the answers are as complex as is this phenomenon. Was President Ronald Reagan (like leaders in China and Russia) of the denialist movement because he did not support evidence-based needle exchange programmes or was he being politically expedient by cowering to the religious right with their conservative and uninformed moral and punitive views on HIV?

This book focuses on the top tier of the social order of denialism, those who propagate the misinformation about HIV. Under these are those who gravitate towards denialism and conspiracy theories. In his own words, the largest section makes up the lowest tier and they are the ‘‘least visible and also most concerning’’, these being the patients with HIV, the recently diagnosed, grappling with the burden of knowing their status and what this means for the rest of their lives. This is an area that will need greater focus in future writings. With the appointment of the new cabinet after  President Mbeki led by President Jacob Zuma with the new minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, denialism is a non-issue at the top of the ‘‘pyramid’’ where there is the political leadership that can make or break the stranglehold of denialism as seen through the ages. There is a renewed sense of hope. The country is now poised to undertake the huge challenge to regain the ground that has been lost through the Mbeki years and improve access to prevention, treatment, care and support. Civil society is being mobilised to meet these challenges. 

On the individual level, where denialism is a form of coping with the reality of shock and grief, the care worker is constantly presented with an array of complex manifestations that need to be addressed to ensure maximum benefit from treatment. The newly diagnosed may find comfort in denial from time to time, as the challenges of living with HIV manifest. Addressing these very personal challenges of denial has not been the focus of this book although touched on. The care worker realises that individuals all have their own journeys through  oming to terms with this diagnosis, being there in a supportive way more than bridges this gap between denial and acceptance. The complexity of denialism at the top of the pyramid is though reflected through the rich text and solid research that went into writing this book where the author tries to find the root of HIV denialism and the reasons behind this phenomenon.

This well-researched book makes for interesting reading and diligently chronicles the events in the sad history of this epidemic, accurately highlighting the elements fitting for a Shakespearian tragedy. Recent events though in South Africa have shown how these can be rapidly overcome. There is though no time for complacency, more people need access to improved, cheaper treatment. Slipping back into denialism
and pseudoscience can recur again. Denial at the individual level presents ongoing challenges and addressing these in a creative way will always be the essence of care. There is no need for people in
leadership, be they from any sector (government or the religious sector), with their denialism conspiracy
theories to add to these challenges.


  1. For centuries, South Africa was brutalized by colonialism, then Apartheid, and when Mandela and Mbeki broke through-- they all got AIDS?

    Doesn't seem to fit......


  2. Bill you should do two things:
    1. Expound and be more specific. It sounds as if you are accusing Mr. Mandela of something sinister.
    2. Do a little research on Mr. Mandela. He was himself brutalized and held captive.

  3. I think Bill is off his meds again. His comment does not make any sense at all.

    JTD, I wonder why Mandela did not get 'AIDS' when he was brutalized in prison? Maggiore said that the stress of being jailed in San Francisco killed David Pasquale...

  4. "They" obviously doesn't mean Mandela and Mbeki (heroic revolutionaries) but to South Africa as a whole. Think bigger folks - Colonialism, then Apartheid, then .... "you all have AIDS?!"

    How convenieennnnnnttt for the ex-Colonialists, ex-Apartheidists to destabilize stigmatize the new guard, after losing so much power.

    Anyway, before I forget, though, I have an update on my progress on the Boily Book Report, written as a poem. Here goes:

    I once read a paper by Boily
    The data within seemed quite Holy
    With a tonic and gin
    I imbibed it all in
    Along with some fresh Guacamole!

    How's that?

    Your friend, Bill

  5. Seth - I'm sure Bill will be put back on his leash soon. Feeding time is coming up....

    In terms of Mandela not getting AIDS - that can be explained by the "love frequencies" that the rest of the world was sending him by mental telepathy. If you need proof of this, I'm sure the esteemed journalist and "life vessel" expert Celia Farber would be happy to verify that.

    It's a shame that Mandela couldn't swim back to the mainland from Robben Island. All the Nessies in the water ready to pounce on any escapee...

  6. The authors don't even know what exponential means. GOOD POST!

  7. Hi Seth, you keep carping on about AIDS denialism.

    Can you inform us as to who it is that is Denying AIDS, perhaps a quote or two from these evil doers where they actually say that "AIDS" does not exist.

    I mean the seeming reason for you existence is that there is a horde of people out there denying that AIDS exists.

    Strangely I haven't seen anyone anywhere denying that.

    Can you also show me where these so called AIDS Denialists are linked somehow to Climate Change Skeptics or Holocaust Denialists or even perhaps the more sinister Tea Party.


  8. Anonymous

    Good point, sort of.

    As I say in Denying AIDS, most of you are really an HIV/AIDS denialist - like Deusberg. Some of you are HIV denialists - like the Perthies. It seems that none of you deny that 'people are dying of old African diseases'. You just deny that HIV is cause of immune collapse.

    So let me ask you, how is that Kari Stokely has CMV colitis - an AIDS defining condition? What has caused her AIDS? I suppose those awful medications she used to take?

    And what exactly was the cause of Christine Maggiore's immune system failure?

    And her daughter, Eiiza Jane, what caused her immune system to fail?

    It is not that AIDS Deniers are the same people as climate change deniers and Holocaust deniers (although they sometimes are - Say hello to David Crowe). It is that you all share the same psychopathology... a mix of paranoid and narcissistic traits and a delusional belief system.

    Any other questions?

  9. So the reality is there is no one DENYING AIDS. In which case I'd suggest useage of the title is an atttempt to sensationalise the issue and deflect from the argument. This in itself fuels the conspiracy theorists out there. Which of course makes you and your ilk a part of the problem. What is the psychology behind that?

  10. Seth - don't forget to mention AIDS denier Clarki Baker who runs his AIDS denial, climate change skeptic, and tea party website.

  11. "So the reality is there is no one DENYING AIDS."

    Wrong. While the term "AIDS denialist" is used broadly to refer to people who promote the delusion that HIV has nothing to do with AIDS, many AIDS denialists also deny the existence of AIDS itself, either in specific cases or in general.

    Mind you, I've yet to meet a denialist who has even understands what AIDS actually is. Celia Farber tells us in House of Numbers "This word AIDS, I don't know what it is any more", which is no surprise to the rest of us who have tried to read her confused drivel on the subject.

    John Lauritsen, for example, claims "although people are undeniably sick, AIDS itself does not exist;" it's a phony construct".

    Duesberg and his fellow nutters (Bauer, Rasnick, Fiala et kid) recently tried to publish a paper claiming that in South Africa "there is no statistical evidence for the loss above normal mortality of 300,000 lives per year or 1.8 million total lives from 2000 to 2005" - while citing death notifications from that country that increased steadily from 317,000 to 607,000 annual deaths between 1997 and 2006.

    They also tried to claim that because populations in many African countries are increasing, then obviously hardly anyone can be dying of AIDS.

    They are obviously in denial. Worse than that, they actively promote that denial to people who can be harmed by it.

    Saddest of all are their victims - the people with HIV/AIDS who develop otherwise rare opportunistic diseases like PCP or cerebral toxoplasmosis or end organ CMV disease who refuse to accept they have the treatable immune system disease AIDS.

    "AIDS denialists" are a mixed bag with a variety of mutually contradictory delusions. Some of them deny that HIV even exists, while others deny the existence of the immune system disease AIDS. But what they all have in common is a refusal to accept that HIV causes AIDS.

    Personally, I prefer the term "HIV/AIDS denialists" as more accurate, but then I don't write the language. "AIDS denialists" is the more commonly used term.

    " I'd suggest useage of the title is an atttempt to sensationalise the issue and deflect from the argument."

    What argument?

  12. Who or what the fuck is a "Snout"?

  13. Snout is the AIDS Deniers worst nightmare. Someone with a brain who takes the time to show idiotic they are.

  14. Yeah right.

    "What argument?"

    Duh! the one you spend countless hours trolling the internet on. DuH! the one that you felt compelled to start a blog about.

    Clearly, if there was no argument, there would be no need for this and other orthodox rhetoric machines that pervade the internet like spambots. Your lack of logic underpins your frail intellect.

  15. "Someone with a brain who takes the time to show idiotic they are."

    when talking about idiots...

  16. Who or what the fuck is a "Snout"?

    Well, a Snout is kind of analogous to a Bill, only with teeth. And without the continual quacking sound.

  17. Sensitivity rules OUT. SPecificity rules IN. But no uneducated denialist could understand that.

  18. "Someone with a brain who takes the time to show idiotic they are."

    Sure, I'll trust in a fake dog that can't string 13 words together to form a coherrent sentence.

    And we give these clowns billions to research stuff?

  19. Well, a Snout is kind of analogous to a Bill, only with teeth. And without the continual quacking sound.

    No, silly goose. Snout is a gay australian male nurse -- not that there's anything wrong with that. He's one of these internet Anti-Denialists, who would rather see folks demonized for not taking AZT or dead from taking AZT.

    A strange lot, methinks.

    Anyway, the only good news from these Rand Paul Republicans who are now gonna take over our country is that they will cut the hell out of all this AIDS nonsense.

    Respectfully, Bill

  20. AIDS is a specific immune deficiency syndrome caused by HIV. Denying that *is* denying AIDS. The immune deficiency is very literally specific, because a large part of the immune dysregulation that occurs involves the loss of diversity in the T cell repertoire due to the accumulation of dysfunctional HIV-specific responses.

    On another topic, does anyone know if D. David Steele and Jeremy Steele are related?

  21. NM asked:
    Does anyone know if D. David Steele and Jeremy Steele are related?

    No, one of them is a loser who has devoted his life to exhibiting himself in pointless obscene spectacles for his fans to masturbate to. It makes him feel important.

    The other is an adult film performer.