On World AIDS Day, we must fight this disease every day

The news that South Africa is finally acknowledging the profound issue of HIV/AIDS is a welcome development after a decade of neglect:

The United States is giving South Africa $120 million for AIDS treatment drugs in response to a plea from President Jacob Zuma that underlines his new approach to fighting the epidemic in the country with the world’s heaviest AIDS burden.

His predecessor’s health minister distrusted drugs developed to keep AIDS patients alive, instead promoting beets and garlic treatments. Zuma, who took over after April elections, and his health minister have said former President Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS policies were wrong. Zuma’s government has set a target of getting 80 percent of those who need AIDS drugs on them by 2011.

“This additional funding is in direct response to the government of South Africa’s request,” U.S. Ambassador Donald Gips said in a statement Tuesday, World AIDS Day, when the world takes stock of efforts to fight the epidemic and remembers those who have died.

“We are pleased and honored to respond to President Zuma as South Africa’s partner in this fight,” Gips said.

But what of the individuals and groups that still deny realities in front of us all?

A middle-aged man walks into an East London café and apologises for being late. With his clipped hair and bus-driver’s uniform of thick overcoat, shirt, and branded tie, he looks like any other public service employee. But soon he delivers a speech of startling ferocity against the medical establishment.

Mike explains that he runs a London-based health website on which he posts articles and links to information that questions whether HIV causes Aids, disputes the existence of HIV, and denies the fact that unprotected sex helps to spread it. He offers support for those who, he says, are “negotiating with medical authorities over taking a different approach to dealing with their circumstances.” He claims to get thousands of hits on his site and has helped advise several people who have been diagnosed with HIV and are launching legal action against their local health authorities, in the belief that they have been unfairly treated by the doctors who are trying to help them.

Mike is an Aids denialist. He shares the view of a global network of academics and campaigners that follow the proclamations of Peter Duesberg, a cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who believes HIV does not cause Aids. And, alarmingly, 2009 has been a good year for the denialist community.

In the first week of November, a record number of Aids denialists from 28 countries, including Britain, attended the Rethinking Aids conference in Oakland, California. One of the main draws of the conference was a screening of a controversial new documentary by Canadian-born director Brent Leung, House of Numbers, which gives a platform to denialist theories.

Over the last two months it has been screened at the Cambridge and Raindance Film Festivals – decisions that provoked a storm of criticism online. The Spectator was forced to cancel a debate and screening of the film on 28 October after some of the participating speakers pulled out. And yet despite widespread outrage, the film has undoubtedly encouraged those who espouse denialist theories in the UK.

So who are the Aids deniers and what do they believe? According to Seth Kalichman, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, whose exposé of the movement, Denying Aids, was published in March, denialists anywhere in the world generally share several common beliefs. They say that the “myth” that HIV causes Aids is the product of conspiracies between governments and the pharmaceutical industry; that antiretroviral medication is toxic; and that one day the orthodox medical theories on HIV will crumble.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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