Monday, February 11, 2013

The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back

I process the new books that come into my department at the Central Library and The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back by Nicoli Nattrass caught my attention. The gay press sometimes devotes space to articles on the "AIDS conspiracy", which Nattrass defines as:

"AIDS conspiracy theories range from the claim that the HIV is a man-made bioweapon, to the 'AIDS denialist' assertions that HIV is harmless and antiretroviral drugs themselves cause AIDS."

Neither of these claims holds any scientific water, and Nattrass, the director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town and thus a qualified scientist, is more than competent to refute the allegations.

The AIDS Conspiracy doesn't just address the issues raised by the conspirators and denialists then prove them wrong with scientific data, but goes deeper in trying to understand what makes conspiracies believable, how the AIDS conspiracy got a foothold and never let go, and how conspirators and denialists make their points by deception, attack and convenient ignorance. When AIDS broke out in the early eighties, I was in high school and remember the three main targets of the disease: gay men, intravenous drug users and Haitians. All three at that time in their own way were marginalized, or considered less desirable or even expendable when compared to straight white Americans. That none of those people were dying of the disease cast suspicions on the etiology of AIDS. It is understandable that questions would be raised about its demographic body count.

Nattrass, who backed up her 163 pages with hundreds of endnotes and 24 pages of references, never stated a point without backing it up in the scientific literature. The conspirators and denialists, however, are prone to emotional rhetoric, skewed data manipulation or, more often, simply cherry-picking facts out of context. It was most interesting to read about Christine Maggiore, a "living icon for the AIDS denialist movement", who although HIV+ disputed science and campaigned against the use of antiretroviral drugs. She herself never took them, nor did she practise safe sex, nor take precautions when her daughter was born (for example, by not breast-feeding her). When her daughter died at the age of three--due to AIDS-related pneumonia--Maggiore, ever the denialist, rejected the coroner's report and claimed that she had died as a result of an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. Maggiore herself succumbed to AIDS a mere three years after receiving her HIV+ diagnosis. Both mother and daughter most definitely would have had longer lives, and perhaps still be alive today, if they had taken antiretrovirals.

Maggiore had a role in one of Africa's most tragic cases caused by AIDS denialism. South African President Thabo Mbeki invited her among other AIDS denialists to a summit in 2000. This meeting would change the way HIV+ South Africans would live out the remainder of their lives. South Africa, the nation with the highest number of HIV+ and AIDS cases, was going to endure what is tantamount to a government-sponsored AIDS genocide. The Minister of Health at the time, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, rejected the theory that HIV caused AIDS and believed that antiretrovirals were toxic. Thus she banned them from the country, promoting an organic, nutrition-based cure for AIDS instead. Over ten years it is believed that 343,000 died as a result of this denialist policy:

"In practice, Mbeki was not merely 'questioning' HIV science or simply attempting to foster debate: he was actively choosing sides by preventing the introduction of proven lifesaving drugs into a country in the grip of a rampant AIDS epidemic."

Some South African provinces wilfully ignored the policy and obtained antiretrovirals and no doubt saved thousands of lives.

Nattrass slams medical journals that are not peer-reviewed. It seems unthinkable that some journals can publish such articles uncontested, yet it is these very journals and their dramatic pronouncements that catch the attention of political figures such as Mbeki, and which remain in electronic library databases.

At times The AIDS Conspiracy was a slow read. I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I spent an entire hour on the first nine pages alone. The title and cover sure made the book seem exciting but the first chapter certainly wasn't. Having to flip back and forth--for the 634 endnotes--made the reading experience a loathsome chore. I understand why Nattrass needed to include so many notes, yet by chapter five (of eight) I got so sick and tired of it that I read the remainder of the endnotes all at once when I had finished the book.  

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