I’ve really struggled to think of a way to write this post, because I almost didn’t want to give this issue any press. I remember earlier this year in the early stages of the presidential campaign, President Obama’s campaign began releasing videos to address lies being told by their opponents, and one critic of this campaign said this was a very bad move because you should never, ever repeat your opponent’s claims, or they will stick in the minds of people who hear it and gain validity.
That’s kind of how I feel about AIDS denialism.
I’ll start by quoting Wikipedia on the subject:
HIV/AIDS denialism is the view held by a loosely connected group of people and organizations who deny that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune Ideficiency syndrome (AIDS). 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, hemophilia, or the effects of the drugs used to treat HIV infection.
What are some of the claims made by AIDS denialists?
AIDS is not a well-defined disease entity but rather a sociopolitical construct (Culshaw) or a single name for numerous diseases;
HIV has never been isolated in pure form, so that the existence of HIV is questionable as is validation of HIV tests;
Antiretroviral treatments have never been proven in properly controlled trials to effect clinical improvement or better health, let alone extended life;
The existence of HIV has not been proven; HIV tests are unreliable; and there is no evidence for sexual transmission of HIV (Papadopulos-Eleopulos*)
HIV exists but it’s harmless (Duesberg, among others);
HIV is not sexually transmitted and does not cause AIDS (Henry Bauer, among others);
Pharmaceutical firms know that antiretroviral drugs are ineffective at treating AIDS but effective at causing AIDS (Rath and Farber);
AIDS deaths are caused by malnutrition, narcotics, and antiretroviral drugs.
Yeah, you read that right. They claim AIDS drugs cause AIDS. Pretty whacky, yeah? Luckily, it’s a “theory” that seems to be becoming less relevant as the years pass, and how could it not with such notable supporters as Bryan Fischer, spokesman of the American Family Association, a believer in Creationism who claims that homosexuality is to blame for the Nazi Holocaust. (I wish I were kidding.)
I admit, my discovery of the theory of AIDS denialism was not necessarily an intellectual one. I first learned about it on an episode of Law & Order: SVU (I watched the first seven seasons on DVD during the marathon 20-22 hour a day nursing session which was my son’s first ten weeks of life — and no, that’s not an exaggeration) called “Retro.”
It was, in true Law & Order style, not so much ripped from the headlines as ripped off from the headlines. It’s loosely based on the story of Christine Maggiore an HIV/AIDS denialist (sorry, they prefer to think of themselves as “dissidents”) who infected her daughter with HIV by breastfeeding while HIV-positive. Her daughter later died from pneumocystis pneumonia, the type of pneumonia found almost exclusively in immuno-compromised people and largely associated with AIDS. When Maggiore later died herself of AIDS-related pneumonia, some of her supporters went so far as to blame stress from the publicity of the L&O episode for making her sick. (Christine Maggiore’s Death: Lessons From a Tragedy)
Dying of AIDS-related illnesses is a trait seen in quite a lot of HIV-positive AIDS denialists, as you can see here
But Christine Maggiore is only a headline because she’s a white, middle-class woman in the United States. AIDS denialism is responsible for many more deaths, particularly in Africa, where an estimated 330,000 people have died and another 200,000 infections, adult and infant, have occurred because of Thabo Mbeki’s support of AIDS denialism during his former presidency.
In 2000, Mbeki called together a round table of experts, including Duesberg and his supporters, but also their opponents, to discuss the cause of Aids. Later that year, at the International Aids conference in Durban, he publicly rejected the accepted scientific wisdom. Aids, he said, was brought about by the collapse of the immune system – but not because of a virus.
The cause, he said, was poverty, bad nourishment and general ill-health. The solution was not expensive western medicine, but the alleviation of poverty in Africa.
In a new paper (PDF), Harvard researchers have quantified the death toll of Mbeki’s stance, which caused him to reject offers of free drugs and grants and led to foot-dragging on the part of his government over bringing in a treatment programme, even after Mbeki – under intense international criticism – had taken a vow of silence on the issue.
It’s conspiracy theory thinking, of course. Conspiracy theories are dangerous because they often contain enough pseudo-science to sound credible to the uninformed and are extremely seductive to people looking to reject painful truths. They’re also give a platform to people who want to paint themselves as fiery rebels against conventional wisdom and saviors of the unenlightened masses. There’s a lot that goes into conspiracy theory thinking and AIDS denialism. Psychologist Seth Kalichman does a brilliant job of dissecting the psychology behind pseudo-science, conspiracy theory adherence and AIDS denialism in this article.
So why did I decide to make AIDS denialism a significant plot point in Inertia (and onward through Acceleration and Velocity) and along Gavin and Derrick’s journey? Because this quote stuck with me:
Every now and again, this group wins a dollop of attention from the media. But this attention is always short-lived and the denialist movement retreats back into well-deserved obscurity.
So why am I talking about them? Because even though they’re irrelevant, they can still do damage. Each HIV-positive person who is pulled in by their misinformation and ends up not starting life-saving HIV treatment is one life that may be lost. Denialists can only be ignored to a certain extent. It’s our responsibility to inform the world about HIV, and that includes informing the world about the harmful information that denialists dish out.
And then later in that same article, Kalichman says:
What makes AIDS denialism different from other types of denialism (like Holocaust denial, 9/11 truth-seeking and all these other conspiracy theories), and what is particularly destructive about AIDS denialism, is exactly what you said. Where we turn to now for information is on the Internet. The AIDS denialists are so prevalent on the Internet that the odds are that, if you search for “AIDS treatment,” “AIDS cure” or “HIV/AIDS,” the hits that you’re going to get will be the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and Johns Hopkins University, and right under them is going to be Rethinking AIDS, the Alberta Reappraising AIDS Society and AIDS VirusMyth, the Web sites for AIDS denialists groups literally around the world.
How one can distinguish the science from the non-science is not obvious. They’re very slick. They have created scientific-looking publications. They write books and self-publish them. To the average person, it’s indistinguishable. What they have done is very successfully created confusion.
With those quotes in mind, the question I asked myself was just how much damage a person adhering to this theory can do to the unsuspecting. So throughout the Impulse trilogy, we hear the echoes of that question bouncing off of Derrick and Gavin as they establish their relationship and wonder what the future holds for Gavin.