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AIDS Denialism

By Gary Bell

January 9, 2012

Recently, someone named Curtis Cost wrote an article assailing the importance and validity of African Americans knowing their HIV status. Since the first widely reported cases in 1981, HIV has been mired in controversies, ranging from its origin to the possible existence of a cure. Sadly, over thirty years later, we continue to have many of the same conversations. What should NOT be in doubt any longer is that HIV disease is having a devastating impact on the African American community. Although African Americans represented only 14% of the U.S. population in 2009, we accounted for 44% of all new HIV infections in that year. Overall, African Americans account for a higher proportion of HIV infections at all stages of disease -- from new infections to death, than any other racial of ethnic group. Moreover, as many as 21% of people living with HIV are unaware of their status and, consequently cause up to 70% of the new infections. So why then, would Mr. Cost write such an impassioned plea for African Americans to NOT get tested for HIV? In short, we refer to people like Mr. Cost as AIDS denialists. AIDS denialists represent individuals or groups who deny that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). While the link between HIV and AIDS has long been established in the scientific community, AIDS denialists continue to dismiss HIV as a harmless passenger virus and assign the cause of AIDS to anything from malnutrition to the drugs used to treat it. Now, before you dismiss the denialists as just foolish or uninformed, let me remind you about Thabo Mbeki, the former President of South Africa and once a poster child for AIDS denialism. By some estimates, his alleged "fiddling while Rome was burning" may have led to as many as 330,000 AIDS deaths as well as almost over 200,000 new HIV infections.

The greatest weapon against AIDS denialists is knowledge, ours. AIDS denialists prey on our own cynicism, ignorance and, yes, our denial. It always amazes me how willing we are to jump on the bandwagon of someone offering very little in the way of proof and disavow decades of scientific evidence. Healthy skepticism can be a good thing. However, use that cynicism to motivate yourselves to seek more information. In other words, do your own homework!

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Transition to Hope

This year marks Bell's 14th as the executive director of the Philadelphia-based BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health), founded in 1985 as the nation's first AIDS organization serving African Americans with HIV. Bell has been widely praised, not only for increasing funding and accountability at a time when HIV donations have plummeted, but also for launching such innovative programs as a women's initiative, prison-discharge planning, and, most recently, a diabetes intervention.

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