Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy by Seth Kalichman, Ph.D.

Nicoli Nattrass Ph.D.
January 15, 2009
HIV causes AIDS. This is not a controversial claim but an established fact, based on more than 25 years of science. Yet a small group of AIDS denialists claims that HIV is harmless, and that the antiretroviral drugs used to fight it cause, rather than treat, AIDS. They believe that the pharmaceutical industry has somehow conspired with thousands of doctors and scientists, to invent a disease as a means of selling harmful drugs. Such talk sounds to most of us like lunacy. But the sad fact is that AIDS denialism has emerged as a genuine menace to global public health including in the United States and, particularly, in South Africa.

AIDS denialism gained such currency with President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa that his administration was, until recently, reluctant to expand access to antiretroviral drugs. This delay cost thousands of lives and to this day only a third of those needing antiretrovirals actually receive them. This response is poor by the standards of middle-income countries, but it is especially troublesome in South Africa, which has more HIV-positive people than any other country.

American AIDS denialists are partly to blame for South Africa’s unfortunate history of AIDS policy. Peter Duesberg, the leading AIDS denialist, and his small band of supporters was invited by Thabo Mbeki to serve on his presidential panel on AIDS. These denialists rejected all the evidence presented to them about the efficacy of using antiretrovirals for the prevention of mother to child transmission. This resulted in policy deadlock and further delayed the use of antiretrovirals either for prevention or treatment. Even after the panel had completed its work, the Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, continued to support AIDS denialists (even engaging one of them as an advisor), to promote unproven alternative nutritional remedies and to denigrate antiretrovirals as poison. Several prominent South Africans died of AIDS after opting to change their diets instead of taking antiretrovirals.

The health minister also failed to take steps against another AIDS denialist, Mattias Rath, for running illegal clinical trials in African townships in which AIDS patients were asked to go off antiretrovirals and onto vitamins instead. It was only after a protracted legal battle fought by the Treatment Action Campaign that these trials were recently declared illegal. In the past, South Africa’s Medicines Control Council acted swiftly to curb such abuses but the power of this body was steadily eroded by the Health Minister. AIDS denial ism now underpins a lucrative nutritional supplements industry that has the tacit, and sometimes active, support of the Mbeki administration.

By courting the AIDS denialists, President Mbeki has increased their stature in the United States. He lent credibility to Christine Maggiore, a Californian who campaigns against using antiretrovirals to prevent mother to child transmission, when he was photographed meeting her. Two years later, Ms. Maggiore gave birth to a daughter who tragically died at age 3 of what the coroner concluded was an AIDS-related infection. Mother-to-child transmission is now rare in the United States, thanks to the widespread use of preventive therapy and the activities of organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Sadly, this is not so in South Africa, where many children are born infected and then face short, painful lives.

Until recently, AIDS researchers and activists in the United States tended to regard the denialists with derision, assuming they would fade away. Unfortunately, this has not happened. Journalists like Celia Farber continue to promote the denialist view and keep them in the public eye. More disturbingly, she and Duesberg received awards during “whistleblower week” in Washington during 2008. This indicates that AIDS denialists have not only been capable of convincing vulnerable AIDS patients to go off their medications, but have also managed to win over certain public opinion makers with their misrepresentations and erroneous point of view. There is a real risk that a new generation of Americans could be persuaded that HIV either does not exist or is harmless, that safe sex is not important and that they do not need to protect their children from this deadly virus. A resurgence of denialism in the United States would have far reaching effects on the global AIDS pandemic, just as it already has in South Africa.

Who are these AIDS denialists and what motivates them to pursue their deadly campaign? Seth Kalichman tackles this difficult topic here in this very useful, timely and insightful book. He provides an engaging portrait of the key AIDS denialists in the United States, showing that they are, at heart, “suspicious thinkers” prone to conspiracy theories and other wacky beliefs. This expose is very important because all too often innocent people are lead to believe that there is a genuine “scientific debate” over AIDS. There is not. We know more about HIV and how it causes AIDS than we know about any other pathogen. AIDS denialists promote the illusion of scientific debate. Seth Kalichman shatters that illusion by pointing to their erroneous forms of reasoning and unscientific approaches. Everyone should read this book.

Dr. Nattrass is a professor of economics and the director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The above article, published with permission from Springer Science & Business Media, is the forward from Seth Kalichman’s book Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy (2009). While it was in press, South Africa’s new government ended its denial policy and Christine Maggiore died at age 52 from pneumonia that presumably was AIDS-related. All royalties from the sale of the book will support the purchase of antiretroviral medications for people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Dr. Kalichman’s blog is at