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HIV/AIDS denialism


HIV/AIDS denialism

Electron micrograph of the human immunodeficiency virus. HIV/AIDS denialism disputes the existence of HIV or its role in causing AIDS.

HIV/AIDS denialism is the belief, contradicted by conclusive medical and scientific evidence,[1][2] that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).[3] Some denialists reject the existence of HIV, while others accept that HIV exists but say that it is a harmless passenger virus and not the cause of AIDS. Insofar as denialists acknowledge AIDS as a real disease, they attribute it to some combination of sexual behavior, recreational drugs, malnutrition, poor sanitation, haemophilia, or the effects of the drugs used to treat HIV infection.[4][5]

The scientific consensus is that the evidence showing HIV to be the cause of AIDS is conclusive[1][2] and that HIV/AIDS denialist claims are pseudoscience based on conspiracy theories,[6] faulty reasoning, cherry picking, and misrepresentation of mainly outdated scientific data.[1][2][7] With the rejection of these arguments by the scientific community, HIV/AIDS denialist material is now targeted at less scientifically sophisticated audiences and spread mainly through the Internet.[8][9]

Despite its lack of scientific acceptance, HIV/AIDS denialism has had a significant political impact, especially in South Africa under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki. Scientists and physicians have raised alarm at the human cost of HIV/AIDS denialism, which discourages HIV-positive people from using proven treatments.[2][8][10][11][12][13] Public health researchers have attributed 330,000 to 340,000 AIDS deaths, along with 171,000 other HIV infections and 35,000 infant HIV infections, to the South African government's former embrace of HIV/AIDS denialism.[14][15] The interrupted use of antiviral treatments is also a major global concern as it potentially increases the likelihood of the emergence of antiviral resistance strains of the virus.[16]


  • History 1
    • U.S. courts 1.1
    • South Africa 1.2
  • HIV/AIDS denialists' claims and scientific evidence 2
  • The HIV/AIDS denialist community 3
    • Former denialists 3.1
    • Death of HIV-positive denialists 3.2
  • Impact beyond the scientific community 4
    • Impact in North America and Europe 4.1
      • In the scientific literature 4.1.1
      • In lay press and on the Internet 4.1.2
    • Impact in South Africa 4.2
      • Durban Declaration 4.2.1
      • Criticism of governmental response 4.2.2
      • Post Mbeki government in South Africa 4.2.3
  • See also 5
  • Footnotes 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


In 1983, a group of scientists and doctors at the Pasteur Institute in France, led by Luc Montagnier, discovered a new virus in a patient with signs and symptoms that often preceded AIDS.[17] They named the virus lymphadenopathy-associated virus, or LAV, and sent samples to Robert Gallo's team in the United States. Their findings were peer reviewed and slated for publication in Science.

At a 23 April 1984 press conference in Washington, D.C., Margaret Heckler, Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced that Gallo and his co-workers had discovered a virus that is the "probable" cause of AIDS. This virus was initially named HTLV-III.[18] That same year, Casper Schmidt responded to Gallo's papers with "The Group-Fantasy Origins of AIDS", Journal of Psychohistory.[19] Schmidt posited that AIDS was not an actual disease, but rather an example of "epidemic hysteria" in which groups of people are subconsciously acting out social conflicts. Schmidt compared AIDS to documented cases of epidemic hysteria in the past which were mistakenly thought to be infectious. (Schmidt himself would later die of AIDS in 1994.)[20][21]

In 1986, the viruses discovered by Montagnier and Gallo, found to be genetically indistinguishable, were renamed HIV.[22]

In 1987, Peter Duesberg questioned the link between HIV and AIDS in the journal Cancer Research.[23] Duesberg's publication coincided with the start of major public health campaigns and the development of zidovudine (AZT) as a treatment for HIV/AIDS.

In 1988, a panel of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that "the evidence that HIV causes AIDS is scientifically conclusive."[1] That same year, Science published Blattner, Gallo, and Temin's "HIV causes AIDS",[24] and Duesberg's "HIV is not the cause of AIDS".[25] Also that same year, the Perth Group, a group of denialists based in Perth, Western Australia led by Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos, published in the non-peer-reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses their first article questioning aspects of HIV/AIDS research,[26] arguing that there was "no compelling reason for preferring the viral hypothesis of AIDS to one based on the activity of oxidising agents."

In 1989, Duesberg exercised his right, as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, to bypass the peer review process and publish his arguments in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) unreviewed. The editor of PNAS initially resisted, but ultimately allowed Duesberg to publish, saying, "If you wish to make these unsupported, vague, and prejudicial statements in print, so be it. But I cannot see how this would be convincing to any scientifically trained reader."[27]

In 1990, Robert Root-Bernstein published his first peer-reviewed article detailing his objections to the mainstream view of AIDS and HIV.[28] In it, he questioned both the mainstream view and the "dissident" view as potentially inaccurate.

In 1991, The Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis, comprising twelve scientists, doctors, and activists, submitted a short letter to various journals, but the letter was rejected.[29]

In 1993, Nature published an editorial arguing that Duesberg had forfeited his right of reply by engaging in disingenuous rhetorical techniques and ignoring any evidence that conflicted with his claims.[30] That same year, Papadopulos-Eleopulos et al. of the Perth Group, alleged in the journal Nature Biotechnology (then edited by fellow denialist Harvey Bialy) that the Western blot test for HIV was not standardized, non-reproducible, and of unknown specificity due to a claimed lack of a "gold standard".[31][32]

On 28 October 1994, Robert Willner, a physician whose medical license had been revoked for, among other things, treating an AIDS patient with ozone therapy, publicly jabbed his finger with blood he said was from an HIV-infected patient.[10] Willner died in 1995 of a heart attack.[33]

In 1995, a letter, similar to the one submitted by The Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis in 1991, was published in Science.[34] That same year, Continuum, a denialist group, placed an advertisement in the British gay and lesbian magazine The Pink Paper offering a £1,000 reward to "the first person finding one scientific paper establishing actual isolation of HIV", according to a set of seven steps they claimed to have been drawn up by the Pasteur Institute in 1973.[35] The challenge was later dismissed by various scientists, including Duesberg, asserting that HIV undoubtedly exists.[35] Stefan Lanka argued in the same year that HIV does not exist.[36]

In 1996, the British Medical Journal published "Response: arguments contradict the "foreign protein-zidovudine" hypothesis"[37] as a response to a petition by Duesberg: "In 1991 Duesberg challenged researchers… We and Darby et al. have provided that evidence". The paper argued that Duesberg was wrong regarding the cause of AIDS in haemophiliacs. In 1997, The Perth Group questioned the existence of HIV, and speculated that the production of antibodies recognizing HIV proteins can be caused by allogenic stimuli and autoimmune disorders.[38][39] They continued to repeat this speculation through at least 2006.[40]

In 2006, Celia Farber, a journalist and prominent HIV/AIDS denialist, published an essay in the March issue of Harper's Magazine entitled "Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science", in which she summarized a number of arguments for HIV/AIDS denialism and alleged incompetence, conspiracy, and fraud on the part of the medical community.[41] Scientists and AIDS activists extensively criticized the article as inaccurate, misleading, and poorly fact-checked.[42][43]

In 2007, members of the Perth Group testified at an appeals hearing for Andre Chad Parenzee, asserting that HIV could not be transmitted by heterosexual sex. The judge concluded, "I reject the evidence of Ms Papadopulos-Eleopulos and Dr Turner. I conclude… that they are not qualified to give expert opinions."[44]

U.S. courts

In 1998, HIV/AIDS denialism and parental rights clashed with the medical establishment in court when Maine resident Valerie Emerson fought for the right to refuse to give AZT to her four-year-old son, Nikolas Emerson, after she witnessed the death of her daughter Tia, who died at the age of three in 1996. Her right to stop treatment was upheld by the court in light of "her unique experience."[45] Nikolas Emerson died eight years later. The family refused to reveal whether the death was AIDS related.[46]

South Africa

In 2000, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki invited several HIV/AIDS denialists to join his Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel.[47] A response named the Durban Declaration was issued affirming the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS:

"The declaration has been signed by over 5,000 people, including Nobel Prize winners, directors of leading research institutions, scientific academies and medical societies, notably the US National Academy of Sciences, the US Institute of Medicine, Max Planck institutes, the European Molecular Biology Organization, the Pasteur Institute in Paris, the Royal Society of London, the AIDS Society of India and the National Institute of Virology in South Africa. In addition, thousands of individual scientists and doctors have signed, including many from the countries bearing the greatest burden of the epidemic. Signatories are of MD, PhD level or equivalent, although scientists working for commercial companies were asked not to sign."[13]

In 2008, University of Cape Town researcher Nicoli Nattrass, and later that year a group of Harvard scientists led by Zimbabwean physician Pride Chigwedere each independently estimated that Thabo Mbeki's denialist policies led to the early deaths of more than 330,000 South Africans.[14][15] Barbara Hogan, the health minister appointed by Mbeki's successor, voiced shame over the studies' findings and stated: "The era of denialism is over completely in South Africa."[48]

HIV/AIDS denialists' claims and scientific evidence

Although members of the HIV/AIDS denialist community are united by their disagreement with the scientific finding that HIV is the cause of AIDS, the specific positions taken by various groups differ. Denialists claim many incompatible things: HIV does not exist; HIV has not been adequately isolated,[49] HIV does not fulfill Koch's postulates,[50] HIV testing is inaccurate,[31] and that antibodies to HIV neutralize the virus and render it harmless.[51] Suggested alternative causes of AIDS include recreational drugs, malnutrition, and the very antiretroviral drugs used to treat the syndrome.[52]

Such claims have been examined extensively in the peer-reviewed medical and scientific literature; a scientific consensus has arisen that denialist claims have been convincingly disproved, and that HIV does indeed cause AIDS.[2][53] In the cases cited by Duesberg where HIV "cannot be isolated", PCR or other techniques demonstrate the presence of the virus,[54] and denialist claims of HIV test inaccuracy result from an incorrect or outdated understanding of how HIV antibody testing is performed and interpreted.[55][56] Regarding Koch's postulates, New Scientist reported: "It is debatable how appropriate it is to focus on a set of principles devised for bacterial infections in a century when viruses had not yet been discovered. HIV does, however, meet Koch's postulates as long as they are not applied in a ridiculously stringent way". The author then demonstrated how each postulate has been met – the suspected cause is strongly associated with the disease, the suspected pathogen can be both isolated and spread outside the host, and when the suspected pathogen is transmitted to a new and uninfected host, that host develops the disease.[2][57] The latter was proven in a number of tragic accidents, including an instance when multiple scientific technicians with no other known risk factors were exposed to concentrated HIV virus in a laboratory accident, and transmission by a dentist to patients, the majority of whom had no other known risk factor or source of exposure except the same dentist in common.[2]

Early denialist arguments held that the HIV/AIDS paradigm was flawed because it had not led to effective treatments. However, the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy in the mid-1990s and dramatic improvements in survival of HIV/AIDS patients reversed this argument, as these treatments were based directly on anti-viral activity and the HIV/AIDS paradigm.[58] The development of effective anti-AIDS therapies based on targeting of the HIV virus has been a major factor in convincing some denialist scientists to accept the causative role of HIV in AIDS.[59]

In a 2010 article on conspiracy theories in science, Ted Goertzel lists HIV/AIDS denialism as an example where scientific findings are being disputed on irrational grounds. He describes proponents as relying on rhetoric, appeal to fairness, and the right to a dissenting opinion rather than on evidence. They frequently invoke the meme of a "courageous independent scientist resisting orthodoxy", invoking the name of persecuted physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei.[60] Regarding this comparison, Goertzel states:

...being a dissenter from orthodoxy is not difficult; the hard part is actually having a better theory. Publishing dissenting theories is important when they are backed by plausible evidence, but this does not mean giving critics 'equal time' to dissent from every finding by a mainstream scientist.
— Goertzel, 2010[60]

The HIV/AIDS denialist community

Denialists often use their critique of the link between HIV and AIDS to promote alternative medicine as a cure, and attempt to convince HIV-infected individuals to avoid ARV therapy in favour of vitamins, massage, yoga and other unproven treatments.[61] Despite this promotion, denialists will often downplay any association with alternative therapies, and attempt to portray themselves as "dissidents". An article in the Skeptical Inquirer stated:

AIDS denialists [prefer] to characterize themselves as brave "dissidents" attempting to engage a hostile medical/industrial establishment in genuine scientific "debate." They complain that their attempts to raise questions and pose alternative hypotheses have been unjustly rejected or ignored at the cost of scientific progress itself...Given their resistance to all evidence to the contrary, today's AIDS dissidents are more aptly referred to as AIDS denialists.[61]

Several scientists have been associated with HIV/AIDS denialism, although they have not themselves studied AIDS or HIV.[9] One of the most famous and influential is Duesberg, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who since 1987 has disputed that the scientific evidence shows that HIV causes AIDS.[23] Other scientists associated with HIV/AIDS denialism include biochemists David Rasnick and Harvey Bialy. Kary Mullis, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his role in the development of the polymerase chain reaction, has expressed sympathy for denialist theories.[62] Biologist Lynn Margulis argued that "there's no evidence that HIV is an infectious virus" and that AIDS symptoms "overlap...completely" with those of syphilis.[63] Pathologist Étienne de Harven also expressed sympathy for HIV/AIDS denial.[64][65]

Additional notable HIV/AIDS denialists include Australian academic ethicist Perth Group, composed of several Australian hospital workers, and the Immunity Resource Foundation.[69]

HIV/AIDS denialism has received some support from political conservatives in the United States. Duesberg's work has been published in Policy Review, a journal once published by the Heritage Foundation but now owned by the Hoover Institution,[70][71][72] and by Regnery Press. Regnery published Duesberg's Inventing the AIDS Virus in 1996,[73] and journalist Tom Bethell's The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, in which he endorses HIV/AIDS denialism, in 2005.[74] Law professor Phillip E. Johnson has accused the Centers for Disease Control of "fraud" in relation to HIV/AIDS.[75] Describing the political aspects of the HIV/AIDS denialism movement, Sociology professor Steven Epstein wrote in Impure Science that "... the appeal of Duesberg's views to conservatives—certainly including those with little sympathy for the gay movement—cannot be denied."[70] The blog has also published articles supportive of HIV/AIDS denialism.[76]

In a follow-up article in

  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases pages on the HIV-AIDS connection and evidence that HIV causes AIDS
  • magazine examining denialist claimsScienceSeries of articles in
  • Evidence that HIV causes AIDS
  •, an organization that advocates against AIDS denialism

External links

  • Fourie, P (2006). The Political Management of HIV and AIDS in South Africa: One Burden Too Many?.  
  • Steinberg, J (23 June 2009). "Five myths about HIV and AIDS". New Scientist. Archived from the original on 2 January 2010. Retrieved 25 December 2009. 
  • Nicoli Nattrass: The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back: New York: Columbia University Press: 2012.

Further reading



  1. ^ a b c d "Confronting AIDS: Update 1988".  
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "The Evidence that HIV Causes AIDS".  
  3. ^ Kalichman 2009, p. 205.
  4. ^ a b Cohen, J. (1994). "Duesberg and critics agree: hemophilia is the best test". Science 266 (5191): 1645–1646.  
  5. ^ a b Kalichman 2009.
  6. ^ Kalichman, Seth C. (1 January 2014). "The Psychology of AIDS Denialism". European Psychologist 19 (1): 13–22.  
  7. ^ "Denying science". Nat. Med. 12 (4): 369. 2006.  
  8. ^ a b c Smith, TC; Novella, SP (August 2007). "HIV denial in the internet era".  
  9. ^ a b Steinberg, J (17 June 2009). "AIDS denial: A lethal delusion". New Scientist 2713. Retrieved 14 October 2009. 
  10. ^ a b Cohen J (December 1994). "The Duesberg phenomenon" (PDF). Science 266 (5191): 1642–4.  
  11. ^ Watson J. (2006). "Scientists, activists sue South Africa's AIDS 'denialists'". Nat Med. 12 (1): 6.  
  12. ^ Boseley, S (14 May 2005). "Discredited doctor's 'cure' for Aids ignites life-and-death struggle in South Africa". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 14 October 2009. 
  13. ^ a b c , (2000). "The Durban Declaration". Nature 406 (6791): 15–6.  
  14. ^ a b c Chigwedere P, Seage GR, Gruskin S, Lee TH, Essex M (October 2008). "Estimating the Lost Benefits of Antiretroviral Drug Use in South Africa". Journal of acquired immune deficiency syndromes (1999) 49 (4): 410–415.  
  15. ^ a b c Nattrass N (February 2008). "AIDS and the Scientific Governance of Medicine in Post-Apartheid South Africa". African Affairs 107 (427): 157–76.  
  16. ^ "HIV-1 antiretroviral resistance: scientific principles and clinical applications.". Drugs. 2012.  
  17. ^ Barré-Sinoussi, F; Chermann, J; Rey, F; Nugeyre, M; Chamaret, S; Gruest, J; Dauguet, C; Axler-Blin, C; Vézinet-Brun, F; Rouzioux, C; Rozenbaum, W; Montagnier, L (1983). "Isolation of a T-lymphotropic retrovirus from a patient at risk for acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)". Science 220 (4599): 868–71.  
  18. ^ Sarngadharan, MG; DeVico, AL; Bruch, L; Schüpbach, J; Gallo, RC (1984). "HTLV-III: The etiologic agent of AIDS". Int. Symp. Princess Takamatsu Cancer Res. Fund 15: 301–8.  
  19. ^ Schmidt, C (1984). "The group-fantasy origins of AIDS".  
  20. ^ Kalichman 2009, p. 26.
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  24. ^ Blattner, W; Gallo, RC; Temin, HM (1988). "HIV causes AIDS". Science 241 (4865): 515–6.  
  25. ^ Duesberg, P (1988). "HIV is not the cause of AIDS". Science 241 (4865): 514.  
  26. ^ Papadopulos-Eleopulos, E (1988). "Reappraisal of AIDS – Is the oxidation induced by the risk factors the primary cause?".  
  27. ^ a b c Booth, W (1989). "AIDS paper raises red flag at PNAS". Science 243 (4892): 733.  
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  29. ^ Epstein, Steven (1996). Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. University of California Press. pp. 143–4. 
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  31. ^ a b Papadopulos-Eleopulos, E; Turner, VF; Papadimitriou, JM (1993). "Is a positive western blot proof of HIV infection?".  
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  33. ^ Bugl, P. "The Rise of HIV/AIDS". Department of Mathematics, University of Hartford. Archived from the original on 4 February 2007. Retrieved 22 January 2007. 
  34. ^ Baumann, E; Bethell, T; Bialy, H; Duesberg, P; Farber, C; Geshekter, C; Johnson, P; Maver, R; Schoch, R; Stewart, G (1995). "AIDS proposal. Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis". Science 267 (5200): 945–6.  
  35. ^ a b King, E (1996). "Isolated facts about HIV: A response to claims by AIDS dissidents that HIV doesn't exist". AIDS Treatment Update 40. 
  36. ^
  37. ^ Sabin, CA; Phillips, AN; Lee, CA (1996). "Response: Arguments contradict the "foreign protein-zidovudine" hypothesis". BMJ 312 (7025): 211–2.  
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  42. ^ Miller, L (13 March 2006). "An article in Harper's ignites a controversy over HIV". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 May 2008. 
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  58. ^ a b Major studies confirming the benefits and effectiveness of modern anti-HIV therapy include, but are not limited to:
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See also

In 2008, Mbeki was ousted from power and replaced as President of South Africa by Kgalema Motlanthe. On Motlanthe's first day in office, he removed Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the controversial health minister who had promoted AIDS-denialist claims and recommended garlic, beetroot, and lemon juice as treatments for AIDS. Barbara Hogan, newly appointed as health minister, voiced shame at the Mbeki government's embrace of HIV/AIDS denialism and vowed a new course, stating: "The era of denialism is over completely in South Africa."[48]

Post Mbeki government in South Africa

In early 2005, former South African president Nelson Mandela announced that his son had died of complications of AIDS. Mandela's public announcement was seen as both an effort to combat the stigma associated with AIDS, and as a "political statement designed to… force the President [Mbeki] out of his denial."[113][114]

In 2002, Mbeki requested that HIV/AIDS denialists no longer use his name in denialist literature, and requested that denialists stop signing documents with "Member of President Mbeki's AIDS Advisory Panel".[99] This coincided with the South African government's statement accompanying its 2002 AIDS campaign, that " conducting this campaign, government's starting point is based on the premise that HIV causes AIDS".[112] Nonetheless, Mbeki himself continued to promote and defend AIDS-denialist claims. His loyalists attacked former President Nelson Mandela in 2002 when Mandela questioned the government's AIDS policy, and Mbeki attacked Malegapuru William Makgoba, one of South Africa's leading scientists, as a racist defender of "Western science" for opposing HIV/AIDS denialism.[48]

At the XVI International AIDS Conference, Stephen Lewis, UN special envoy for AIDS in Africa, attacked Mbeki's government for its slow response to the AIDS epidemic and reliance on denialist claims:

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki's government was widely criticized for delaying the rollout of programs to provide antiretroviral drugs to people with advanced HIV disease and to HIV-positive pregnant women. The national treatment program began only after the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) brought a legal case against Government ministers, claiming they were responsible for the deaths of 600 HIV-positive people a day who could not access medication.[99][111] South Africa was one of the last countries in the region to begin such a treatment program, and roll-out has been much slower than planned.[106]

The former South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang also attracted heavy criticism, as she often promoted nutritional remedies such as garlic, lemons, beetroot and olive oil, to people suffering from AIDS,[103][104][105] while emphasizing possible toxicities of antiretroviral drugs, which she has referred to as "poison".[106] The South African Medical Association has accused Tshabalala-Msimang of "confusing a vulnerable public".[107] In September 2006, a group of over 80 scientists and academics called for "the immediate removal of Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang as minister of health and for an end to the disastrous, pseudoscientific policies that have characterized the South African government's response to HIV/AIDS."[108] In December 2006, deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge described "denial at the very highest levels" over AIDS.[109] She was subsequently fired by Mbeki.[110]

Criticism of governmental response

AIDS scientists and activists were dismayed at the president's behavior and responded with the Durban Declaration, a document affirming that HIV causes AIDS, signed by over 5,000 scientists and physicians.[13][100]

In his address to the International AIDS Conference, Mbeki reiterated his view that HIV was not wholly responsible for AIDS, leading hundreds of delegates to walk out on his speech.[100] Mbeki also sent a letter to a number of world leaders likening the mainstream AIDS research community to supporters of the apartheid regime.[99] The tone and content of Mbeki's letter led diplomats in the U.S. to initially question whether it was a hoax.[101][102]

In 2000, when the International AIDS Conference was held in Durban, Mbeki convened a Presidential Advisory Panel containing a number of HIV/AIDS denialists, including Duesberg and David Rasnick.[99] The Advisory Panel meetings were closed to the general press; an invited reporter from the Village Voice wrote that Rasnick advocated that HIV testing be legally banned and denied that he had seen "any evidence" of an AIDS catastrophe in South Africa, while Duesberg "gave a presentation so removed from African medical reality that it left several local doctors shaking their heads."[47]

Durban Declaration

Independent studies have arrived at almost identical estimates of the human costs of HIV/AIDS denialism in South Africa. According to a paper written by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, between 2000 and 2005, more than 330,000 deaths and an estimated 35,000 infant HIV infections occurred "because of a failure to accept the use of available [antiretroviral drugs] to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS in a timely manner."[14] Nicoli Nattrass of the University of Cape Town estimates that 343,000 excess AIDS deaths and 171,000 infections resulted from the Mbeki administration's policies, an outcome she refers to in the words of Peter Mandelson as "genocide by sloth".[15]

HIV/AIDS denialist claims have had a major political, social, and public health impact in South Africa. The government of then President Thabo Mbeki was sympathetic to the views of HIV/AIDS denialists, with critics charging that denialist influence was responsible for the slow and ineffective governmental response to the country's massive AIDS epidemic.

Impact in South Africa

AIDS activists have expressed concern that denialist arguments about HIV's harmlessness may be responsible for an upsurge in HIV infections. Denialist claims continue to exert a significant influence in some communities; a survey conducted at minority gay pride events in four American cities in 2005 found that 33% of attendees doubted that HIV caused AIDS.[97] According to Stephen Thomas, director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Minority Health, "people are focusing on the wrong thing. They're focusing on conspiracies rather than protecting themselves, rather than getting tested and seeking out appropriate care and treatment."[98]

A 2007 article in PLoS Medicine noted:

In addition to elements of the popular and alternative press, AIDS denialist ideas are propagated largely via the Internet.[96]

With the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in 1996–1997, the survival and general health of people with HIV improved significantly.[58][95] The positive response to treatment with anti-HIV medication cemented the scientific acceptance of the HIV/AIDS paradigm, and led several prominent HIV/AIDS denialists to accept the causative role of HIV.[59][79] Finding their arguments increasingly discredited by the scientific community, denialists took their message to the popular press. A former denialist wrote:

In lay press and on the Internet

Haemophilia is considered the best test of the HIV-AIDS hypothesis by both denialists and AIDS researchers. While Duesberg claims AIDS in haemophiliacs is caused by contaminated clotting factors and HIV is a harmless passenger virus, this result is contradicted by large studies on haemophiliac patients who received contaminated blood. A comparison of groups receiving high, medium and low levels of contaminated clotting factors found the death rates differed significantly depending on HIV status. Of 396 HIV positive haemophiliacs followed between 1985 and 1993, 153 died. The comparative figure for the HIV negative group was one out of 66, despite comparable doses of contaminated clotting factors. A comparison of individuals receiving blood donations also supports the results; in 1994 there were 6888 individuals with AIDS who had their HIV infection traced to blood transfusions. Since the introduction of HIV testing, the number of individuals whose AIDS status can be traced to blood transfusions was only 29 (as of 1994).[4]

HIV/AIDS denialists often resort to special pleading to support their assertion, arguing for different causes of AIDS in different locations and subpopulations. In North America, AIDS is blamed on the health effects of unprotected anal sex and poppers on homosexual men, an argument which does not account for AIDS in drug-free heterosexual women who deny participating in anal sex. In this case, HIV/AIDS denialists claim the women are having anal sex but refuse to disclose it. In haemophiliac North American children who contracted AIDS from blood transfusions, the haemophilia itself or its treatment is claimed to cause AIDS. In Africa, AIDS is blamed on poor nutrition and sanitation due to poverty. For wealthy populations in South Africa with adequate nutrition and sanitation, it is claimed that the antiretroviral drugs used to treat AIDS cause the condition. In each case, the most parsimonious explanation and uniting factor – HIV positive status – is ignored, as are the thousands of studies that converge on the common conclusion that AIDS is caused by HIV infection.[5]

Finding difficulty in publishing his arguments in the scientific literature, Duesberg exercised his right as a member of the National Academy of Sciences to publish in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) without going through the peer review process. However, Duesberg's paper raised a "red flag" at the journal and was submitted by the editor for non-binding review. All of the reviewers found major flaws in Duesberg's paper; the reviewer specifically chosen by Duesberg noted the presence of "misleading arguments", "nonlogical statements", "misrepresentations", and political overtones.[27] Ultimately, the editor of PNAS acquiesced to publication,[94] writing to Duesberg: "If you wish to make these unsupported, vague, and prejudicial statements in print, so be it. But I cannot see how this would be convincing to any scientifically trained reader."[27]

In the following few years, others became skeptical of the HIV theory as researchers initially failed to produce an effective treatment or vaccine for AIDS.[91] Journalists such as Neville Hodgkinson and Celia Farber regularly promoted denialist ideas in the American and British media; several television documentaries were also produced to increase awareness of the alternative viewpoint.[92] In 1992–1993, The Sunday Times, where Hodgkinson served as scientific editor, ran a series of articles arguing that the AIDS epidemic in Africa was a myth. These articles stressed Duesberg's claims and argued that antiviral therapy was ineffective, HIV testing unreliable, and that AIDS was not a threat to heterosexuals. The Sunday Times coverage was heavily criticized as slanted, misleading, and potentially dangerous; the scientific journal Nature took the unusual step of printing a 1993 editorial calling the paper's coverage of HIV/AIDS "seriously mistaken, and probably disastrous."[93]

The publication of Duesberg's first AIDS paper in 1987 provided visibility for denialist claims. Shortly afterwards, the journal Science reported that Duesberg's remarks had won him "a large amount of media attention, particularly in the gay press where he is something of a hero."[89] However, Duesberg's support in the gay community dried up as he made a series of statements perceived as homophobic; in an interview with the Village Voice in 1988, Duesberg stated his belief that the AIDS epidemic was "caused by a lifestyle that was criminal twenty years ago."[90]

In the scientific literature

Skepticism about HIV being the cause of AIDS began almost immediately after the discovery of HIV was announced. One of the earliest prominent skeptics was the journalist John Lauritsen, who argued in his writings for the New York Native that AIDS was caused by amyl nitrite poppers, and that the government had conspired to hide the truth.[87] Lauritsen's The AIDS War was published in 1993.[88]

Impact in North America and Europe

AIDS-denialist claims have failed to attract support in the scientific community, where the evidence for the causative role of HIV in AIDS is considered conclusive. However, the movement has had a significant impact in the political sphere, culminating with former South African President Thabo Mbeki's embrace of AIDS-denialist claims.[86] The resulting governmental refusal to provide effective anti-HIV treatment in South Africa has been blamed for hundreds of thousands of premature AIDS-related deaths in South Africa.[48]

Impact beyond the scientific community

[85] The litigants settled out of court, with the county paying Scovill $15,000 in March 2009, with no admission of wrongdoing. The L.A. coroner's ruling that Eliza Jane Scovill died of AIDS remains standing as the official verdict.[67].AIDS-related pneumonia's civil rights by releasing an autopsy report that listed her cause of death as Eliza Scovill and others on behalf of their daughter's estate, for allegedly violating Los Angeles County sued Robin Scovill in 2005, Maggiore continued to believe that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and she and her husband AIDS-related pneumonia After her three-year-old daughter died of [84] In 2008, activist

In 2007,, a website run by HIV researchers to counter denialist claims,[81] published a partial list of HIV/AIDS denialists who had died of AIDS-related causes. For example, the editors of the magazine Continuum consistently denied the existence of HIV/AIDS. The magazine shut down after both editors died of AIDS-related causes.[82] In each case, the HIV/AIDS denialist community attributed the deaths to unknown causes, secret drug use, or stress rather than HIV/AIDS.[21][59] Similarly, several HIV-positive former dissidents have reported being ostracized by the AIDS-denialist community after they developed AIDS and decided to pursue effective antiretroviral treatment.[83]

Death of HIV-positive denialists

A former denialist wrote in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2004:

Both Sonnabend and Root-Bernstein now favor a less controversial hypothesis, suggesting that while HIV is necessary for AIDS, cofactors may also contribute.

Joseph Sonnabend, who until the late 1990s regarded the issue of AIDS causation as unresolved, has reconsidered in light of the success of newer antiretroviral drugs, stating, "The evidence now strongly supports a role for HIV… Drugs that can save your life can also under different circumstances kill you. This is a distinction that denialists do not seem to understand."[79] Sonnabend has also criticized HIV/AIDS denialists for falsely implying that he supports their position, saying:

Several of the few prominent scientists who once voiced doubts about HIV/AIDS have since changed their views and accepted the fact that HIV plays a role in causing AIDS, in response to an accumulation of newer studies and data.[78] Root-Bernstein, author of Rethinking AIDS: The Tragic Cost of Premature Consensus and formerly a critic of the causative role of HIV in AIDS, has since distanced himself from the HIV/AIDS denialist movement, saying, "Both the camp that says HIV is a pussycat and the people who claim AIDS is all HIV are wrong...The denialists make claims that are clearly inconsistent with existing studies."[79]

Former denialists

Some of them had overlapping roles as board members of Rethinking AIDS and [77]

  • Hero scientists to provide scientific legitimacy: Most notably Duesberg who plays the central role of HIV/AIDS denialism from the beginning. Others include David Rasnick, Étienne de Harven, and Kary Mullis whose Nobel Prize makes him symbolically important.
  • "Cultropreneurs" to offer fake cures in place of antiretroviral therapy: Matthias Rath, Gary Null, Michael Ellner, and Roberto Giraldo all promote alternative medicine and remedies with a dose of conspiracy theories in the form of books, healing products, radio shows and counseling services.
  • HIV positive living icons to provide proof of concept by appearing to live healthily without antiretroviral therapy: Christine Maggiore was and still is the most important icon in the HIV/AIDS denialist movement despite the fact that she died of AIDS related complications in 2008.
  • Praise singers: sympathetic journalists and filmmakers who publicize the movement with uncritical and favorable opinion. They include journalists Celia Farber, Liam Scheff and Neville Hodgkinson; filmmakers Brent Leung and Robert Leppo.


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