AIDS Denialists Are Not Iconoclasts. They’re Dangerous Nuts.

Health and medicine explained.
Oct. 8 2013 11:47 PM

Deadly Disbelief

The myth that HIV does not cause AIDS seems to have claimed another victim.

HIV infected heavyweight boxer and former WBO champion Tommy Morrison of the United States poses during a weigh-in in Tokyo November 2, 1996.
Tommy Morrison poses during a weigh-in in Tokyo on Nov. 2, 1996.

Photo by Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters

Tommy Morrison, once the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, died of AIDS last month. His case, however, was not typical for someone with HIV: He and his wife, Trisha, denied he had the infection to the bitter end. In fact, not only did they deny that Morrison was infected, they denied that HIV causes AIDS at all. And it’s not even clear that they think the condition called AIDS actually exists.  

Their tripartite denial makes the story a bit tricky to follow at times, though taken one by one, there is a credible context to at least some of their claims: Morrison’s pursuit of a negative test in the 1990s to allow him back into the ring is a reasonable business decision for a boxer with few other marketable skills. And let’s face it—a thorough grasp of the pathophysiology of a progressive immunodeficiency caused by CD4 cell loss over time can be a heavy lift.

But the Morrisons’ vigorous denial that AIDS is caused by a transmissible virus, called HIV, falls well outside mainstream thinking. In their nonbelief, however, they are not alone. Indeed, the world of HIV deniers (also called AIDS deniers or HIV/AIDS deniers) has been around almost as long as the disease itself. The size of their ranks in 2013 is difficult to estimate, given the Internet’s natural ability to overestimate based on enthusiasm, but it surely numbers in the thousands.

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Their varied paths to denialism make these people unique among non-reality-based groups. Take the anti-vaccination activists: At their core is a clutch of parents worried about their kids. Any parent knows that parenthood can be a rationality-free zone. Or the anti-global warming agnostics: They seem more like a front group for Big Oil or at least Chamber of Commerce boosterism than a group of wide-eyed (non)believers willing to take a life-and-death stand on principle. Even the anti-evolution zealots are just expressing their deliberately blind faith in a deity, and the blinder, the better.

In contrast, the HIV deniers are an oddball collection of prissy scientists, right-wing moralizers, standard big-government paranoids, and those still very spooked by the idea that men have sex with men. There are no TV stars in their midst, no money, much less Big Money; they have neither conventions nor house organs—even Fox News sits at a safe remove. Indeed, they have no real political agenda except perhaps a limp suspicion that science is corrupt and scientists are even more corrupt and that all those taxpayer billions could be better spent on a real disease.

However, despite the amorphous organizational structure, deniers persist and persist. They are true-blooded, bright-eyed nonbelievers. The last time their noise made it into the mainstream media was in a 2006 Harper’s long-form fantasy by Celia Farber decrying all manner of conspiracy and scientific turpitude and Pharma-cronyism. But last year, Pastor Bryan Fischer, a fervent AIDS denialist with the American Family Association, rattled the cage in a screed that started out with his musings about Magic Johnson surviving 20 years with HIV. Fischer claimed there was no way that HIV, a simple, humble virus, could cause AIDS. The real reason for the disease, he explained, is the ongoing use of party drugs by homosexuals having frequent anonymous sex: “The only way this is possible is through taking stimulants that heighten sexual pleasure and make multiple sexual experiences possible.”

Fischer’s views are largely taken from the father of AIDS denialism, Peter Duesberg. His story was well-told in a profile in Discover magazine in 2008. He is a German immigrant and “brilliant scientist” who has been on the faculty at the University of California–Berkeley since 1964. His field is the study of how a cancer cell becomes a cancer cell, and his first insight was extremely important. It had been long known that certain viruses could cause cancer. Duesberg and a colleague isolated the specific viral gene that led to a specific type of cancer in chickens; this was the first “cancer gene.” By any measure, as a scientist, he was hot.

Then, in 1987, at the age of 51, with more than 120 articles published in the medical literature, Duesberg stabbed his manifesto onto the door of orthodox science first in a dense, long article in Cancer Research, then, more dramatically with a brief one-page piece in 1988 in Science entitled “HIV Is Not the Cause of AIDS.” In it, he laid out his argument with nine specific points. (In contrast, Luther needed 95 theses to get his points across.) In reading Duesberg’s work now, I am surprised by its thinness and its whiny, unsophisticated tone. I was expecting a masterful explanation of an alternative view that would make me think twice. But there truly is nothing to his criticisms, even judged by information available in 1988. The simplest to refute is his claim that HIV had not been transmitted to health care workers who had sustained an accidental needle stick: Transmission from a needle stick had been well-documented by the time he wrote this. I cared for many people, now dead, who became infected in this manner.

It is unclear whether Duesberg was unaware of various articles or chose to not consider them since they popped his balloon too readily, but the latter seems much more likely. Duesberg is often described as a contrarian, which can be an excellent trait for a serious scientist. Contrarians can’t help themselves—every fact, every idea, every graph, and every figure, all of it is flat-out wrong. Why is everyone a moron—don’t they get it? Ever since Galileo, scientist wannabes have idolized the loner who stood up against facile convention and saw what no one else was willing to see, damn the consequences. Of course, forgotten in the celebration of the few great iconoclasts is the trail of brilliant nuts, people who dug in with a bad idea and refused to listen to new information.  

Duesberg is still at it: He published an article in 2011 in the Italian Journal of Anatomy and Embryology entitled, “AIDS Since 1984: No Evidence for a New, Viral Epidemic—Not Even in Africa,” a work embraced by Fischer and others. Duesberg’s entire odd career detour would be nothing but the mildly annoying ramblings of the village contrarian were it not for the fact that it has supplied the scientific-sounding foothold for the lethal denialism of former South African President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki, acting in 2000 on his belief that HIV was not a cause of AIDS, refused antiretroviral medication donated to his country, which then as now had a startlingly high rate of HIV infection. (Almost all were infected by heterosexual transmission, not the homosexual sex-and-drug addiction, immune-withering theory posited by Duesberg and Fischer.) One study that examined the impact of his declination during the years 2000 to 2005 estimated that at least 330,000 South Africans died because of the lack of antiretroviral medications. In addition, 35,000 babies were born with preventable HIV infection because effective antiretroviral medication was not given to their infected mothers.

The sad fate of Tommy Morrison, as well as thousands in South Africa and worldwide who have become sick with HIV for lack of effective treatment, is a chilling example of the power of nonbelief. (By some reports, Morrison did take antiretrovirals soon after his diagnosis but then rejected treatment; few details are available on his clinical course.)

Science is not a religion that one can believe in when the mood strikes but turn away from if the going gets tough. Yes, there are tremendous controversies, and yes, today’s truth may become tomorrow’s harrowing misstep. But the fact is that facts do exist: The Earth is round and revolves around the sun, cells require oxygen for metabolism and produce carbon dioxide, trees bud in the spring, smoking causes lung cancer. And HIV causes AIDS. Hopefully with the re-examination of HIV denialism prompted by the boxer’s death, Tommy Morrison will be among the last to die the death of denial.  

Kent Sepkowitz is a physician in New York City who writes about medicine.

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