“Positively mistaken” (HIV denial)

Medical Claim REJECTED

Today, HIV denial is a garden variety conspiracy theory. A scapegoat is pegged, the establishment is accused of a coverup, and evidence is cherry picked. Logical fallacies and ad hominem are sprinkled liberally and when backed into a counterpoint corner, proponents move the goalposts.

But in its early days of 1984, HIV denial might not have seemed all that crazy. For some, identifying HIV as the cause of AIDS was just too convenient to have happened in a presidential election year. Specifically, a reelection year for a conservative darling whose administration had been criticized for doing so little to combat the disease. Coming not long after Vietnam and Watergate, it’s easy to see how a person could have doubted it when government scientists announced this major breakthrough.

One classmate during my sophomore year of high school wondered what the big deal was, since AIDS was primarily killing homosexuals and drug users. While this extreme position was not a consensus opinion even in small-town 1983, AIDS was a peripheral concern among many considering how serious it should have been taken by all. It was primarily impacting some of society’s most scorned populations, so questioning whether the solution had even been sought could have seemed legitimate. 

However, once the science was explained and repeatedly demonstrated, the doubt turned into denial, and it cost some people their lives. This was most true in South Africa, where Thabo Mbeki’s terms as vice president and president were marred by his pushing of sham treatments for HIV positive persons. He championed the use of virodene, which contains dimethylformamide. Unlike those cited by the Food Babe, this chemical is dangerous to ingest, as it can lead to irreversible and even fatal liver damage. Mbeki considered other treatments to be a fraud meant to enrich pharmaceutical companies. He also embraced a homemade remedy of Africa potato, olive green leaves, and grapefruit seeds.

In what would be comical sideshows were the issue less serious, other denial camps claimed HIV was the result of voodoo, or that it was a western plot to undermine communism. Alas, the issue was of utmost seriousness. Denial caused some to reject medication until it was too late. Mbeki’s shameless denial and promotion of bogus cures led a third of a million South Africans to die without seeking legitimate treatment. And one of the saddest ironies of the denialist movement was when some of its main proponents, the editors at Continuum magazine, all perished from AIDS.

Another poignant case was that of Christine Maggiore, who promoted HIV denial while HIV positive and pregnant. She and her baby both died from AIDS-related illnesses. With these deaths, the HIV denial movement largely collapsed. Today, it would likely gain momentum, as the Maggiores’ deaths would be followed by immediate, baseless claims that they had been murdered by government agents and Big Pharma thugs. Of course, there are still pockets of deniers, just like there are those who think super-evolved reptilians and lording over a Flat Earth.

HIV denial fails to address the fact that AIDS is successfully treated with anti-HIV medication, and that almost anyone with HIV develops AIDS if untreated. The counterarguments are flimsy. Maggiore, for instance, pointed out that other factors could lead to symptoms experienced by HIV positive persons. That would be like arguing that fatal crashes can be caused by texting or whiteout conditions, so therefore, no one has died from drunk driving.

Meanwhile, Cal-Berkeley professor Peter Duesberg thinks it a crucial point that AIDS can stay latent for five years, whereas other viruses attack the host within days. This is irrelevant since latency is unrelated to causation.

When CDC epidemiologists searched for the cause, one of the earliest clues was the mode of transmission. People with AIDS had been exposed to bodily fluids of others with the disease. Another key realization centered on hemophiliacs. Though the blood they received was filtered, they still became ill, and only viruses were able to bypass these filters. During CDC research, HIV was found to be present in all AIDS-afflicted persons, while no other agent was present in every patient.

This leads us to the Koch Postulates. These are the four criteria that must be met to establish a causative relationship  between a microbe and a disease. All are met when trying to tie AIDS to HIV: The microorganism is found in all organisms suffering from the disease; the microorganism has been isolated from a diseased organism and grown in a culture; the cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism; and the microorganism must be re-isolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host, then identified as being identical to the original causative agent.

However, Duesberg continues to insist that AIDS stems from drug use – not the sharing of needles portion, but from the ingestion of drugs such as cocaine. Duesberg is either mistaken about cocaine causing AIDS, or reports of the drug’s prevalence among upper middle class white urbanites has been greatly exaggerated since that demographic is not disproportionately impacted by the disease.

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