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

“I Didn’t Want to Believe It”: Lessons from Tuskegee 40 Years Later

Located among longleaf pine and hardwood trees, low ridges, and broad floodplains, Tuskegee, Alabama, is a small town that’s been a big part of American history. Despite a modest population of less than 10,000 people, Tuskegee has been able to boast many notable residents who have made names for themselves in everything from sports to the arts. Among them have been the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American Air Force unit, which served during World War II, and Rosa Parks, the icon of the civil rights movement, who sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, conducted from 1932 to 1972, examined the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor, rural black men — without their informed consent.

Tuskegee, though, is also remembered for one of the worst chapters in the history of medical research. Forty years ago, in 1972, newspapers revealed the story of a syphilis study that was callous in its deception of research participants, and damaging, even today, in the distrust it sowed among black Americans. The study had started another 40 years prior, in 1932, when the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) needed to rescue a financially troubled syphilis intervention in Macon County, Alabama. The intervention was first established in partnership with a Chicago-based philanthropic organization, but its future was uncertain when the organization’s funds dried up during the Great Depression.

Syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, was the subject of conflicting scientific hypotheses at the time, including the hypothesis that the disease behaved differently in blacks and whites. Interested in testing those hypotheses and faced with disappearing funds for treatment, the USPHS turned its project into a study of untreated syphilis. Also influencing the decision was the fact that the USPHS was discouraged by the low cure rate of the treatments at the time, mercury and bismuth. But by the mid-1940s, penicillin was in use as a proven treatment for syphilis. In spite of that medical advance, the USPHS withheld treatment from a total of 399 infected patients by the time the study ended in 1972. Continue reading