AIDS Denialism: Conspiracy Theories Can Kill

This scanning electron micrograph from 1989 reveals HIV particles (colored green) emerging from an infected cell. Image: CDC’s C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E.L. Palmer, W.R. McManus

We’ve all heard various conspiracy theories; we may or may not find them credible, and we might chalk up opposing viewpoints to simple differences in opinion. Sometimes, however, conspiratorial narratives are woven around matters of life and death — and in such cases, the spread of such ideas can influence dangerous changes in behavior and even government policy.

AIDS denialism is based on the idea that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) does not cause AIDS. Although the existence of HIV and its causal connection to AIDS has been thoroughly demonstrated by scientists, denialists either reject the existence of HIV altogether, or cast it as a harmless virus that doesn’t cause illness. Denialism often relies upon rhetorical strategies that are superficially convincing but intellectually hollow, including the cherry-picking of evidence, appeals to unreliable “experts,” and untestable claims. Denialists also might cite early AIDS research from the mid-1980s while ignoring more up-to-date findings and improved medical procedures. Such rhetoric creates a sense of legitimate debate in an area where there is none, and the only new evidence welcomed into the discourse is that which confirms preconceived notions.

Health decisions must be shaped by the best available evidence, and when denialism misinforms, one cannot make an informed decision.

If AIDS isn’t caused by HIV, what do denialists claim is behind the unique symptoms that characterize it? Some say that conditions such as malnutrition, or diseases that have been around for a long time, are simply being labeled as AIDS. Other denialists cast antiretroviral drugs as the cause, rather than the preventive treatment, of AIDS. Some claim that AIDS is caused by behavior, such as drug use or promiscuity — with some even saying that an accumulation of semen in the anus can cause AIDS. None of the claims is true — while AIDS can leave someone vulnerable to a wide variety of diseases, and while sharing IV equipment and engaging in unprotected sex can increase risk, there is only one cause: HIV. Continue reading

A Spotlight on Folic Acid

A cup of cooked lentils contains 358 micrograms of folate.

In the late 1920s, the London School of Medicine for Women graduated a brilliant student named Lucy Wills. This newly minted physician embarked on a trip to Bombay to investigate reports of anemic female laborers whose condition seemed to be exacerbated by childbirth. Thinking the anemia could be a sign of a nutritional deficiency, she fed her patients Marmite, which at the time was a fad among British and Australian health nuts. It seemed to help, and because she didn’t know which chemicals in Marmite were responsible for her patients’ improvement, she called that unknown ingredient the Wills factor — which we now know is folic acid.

Prenatal folic-acid supplements are thought to prevent 50 to 75 percent of neural tube defects.

January 8 marked the start of Folic Acid Awareness Week. Folic acid is essential in cell division, so we need it in order to grow or simply to repair damaged tissues. It is especially important that anyone who might become pregnant consumes at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, as it can help prevent certain types of birth defects.

Neural tube defects, including anencephaly and spina bifida, occur in about 1 in 1,000 births, and can affect an embryo when it is just a few weeks old, often before pregnancy is even detected. Anencephaly is an especially tragic and usually fatal condition in which an embryo fails to develop parts of its brain or skull. The prognosis for spina bifida is better — some people with spina bifida are unable to walk, while other cases are so mild that they might never be diagnosed. Continue reading