Published by Vice
On the maternity ward of California's Kaiser Permanente hospital, John and Jessica Strangis found themselves facing a terrible decision. It was the 1st of June, 2014, and the couple were expecting their first child. Jessica had begun feeling contractions at around 4AM that morning, so John called an ambulance, waiting for it to arrive before getting in his car to make the 20-minute drive from their home to the hospital.
Jessica had gone into labour five weeks early, but there was another complication: John and Jessica were both HIV positive. They knew the doctors would want to give her drugs to prevent the virus being transmitted to their child, but this presented a problem, because both John and Jessica believed those drugs would kill her.
John and Jessica Strangis were HIV denialists, part of a small community that, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, questions the link between HIV and AIDS. The theories espoused by denialists vary, but typically come down to a few key beliefs: that HIV does not exist or is benign, and that AIDS is directly caused by recreational drug use or lifestyle choices and is not sexually transmitted. As for the vast numbers of people who have died as a result of the disease? It's the HIV treatment that has killed them.
John's introduction to HIV denialism came in 2011, shortly after he received a positive diagnosis. Like many, he stumbled across denialist ideas while searching for information about his condition online. John decided to reject treatment. A few months later, Jessica did the same. John became a vocal spokesman for the movement, making YouTube videos about denialist ideas. When the couple discovered they were expecting a baby, John discussed various options with denialists online – anything that might allow Jessica to avoid taking HIV drugs. Some suggested travelling abroad. Others recommended a home birth. In the end, the baby's premature arrival meant they had no time to carry out these plans.