Every year, people all over the world say stridently stupid, misinformed or absurd things about HIV and AIDS. Here's a list of some folks who make you wonder what, if anything, they were thinking before they opened their mouths in 2003. Their comments are best met with three little words: Just shut up.
Hugo Pacheco. In an attempt to address HIV/AIDS denial in the Latino community, activists proposed a memorial to AIDS victims at Lincoln Park in the largely Latino Los Angeles community of Lincoln Heights. The project is envisioned as an expansive, permanent monument in a public setting that includes a rose garden, benches, a sculpture and panels with the names of victims -- Latinos as well as non-Latinos. The memorial is to be financed by state, city and private donors. But the nine-year project hit a snag when opponents, led by Lincoln Heights resident Hugo Pacheco, got all snarky about the appropriateness of the monument in a community park and the destruction of green space. "It's simply a case of taking up too much park space," said Pacheco, who really needs to get a life. "And why just AIDS? What about diabetes? It's a bigger thing than AIDS," he added, immediately weakening his own argument by drawing an irrelevant comparison between a communicable virus and a blood glucose disorder. Despite the foot in his mouth, Pacheco added, "A monument that may list 2,000 victims will make the park look like a cemetery. And if you're in the park with your kids, how do you start explaining AIDS to your kids?" Mr. Pacheco, who has no plans to create a diabetes memorial, is sadly oblivious to the real facts about HIV in his community. Latinos comprise 14% of the U.S. population, but account for 20% of all AIDS cases. Maybe it's not such a bad idea for Latino parents to start talking to their kids about HIV.
Michael Wessels. While being admitted to a university hospital clinic in Munster, Germany, for a blood transfusion, this guy noted on his patient consent form that he did not want an HIV test. But when he received his itemized bill from the clinic, it appeared he'd been given one anyway because of a lab error. The results: Wessels tested negative for HIV. His reaction: Instead of being relieved or even grateful he's not infected, he felt litigious and immediately decided to sue the clinic, charging it with bodily harm and violating his right to self-determination. Wessels claimed, "A positive result would have been a catastrophe for me because I would not have had a chance to prepare myself for it." Sure, German law obliges medical facilities to obtain a patient's consent before performing an HIV test. The clinic apologized to Wessels, but he remained determined to take legal action. Wouldn't bodily harm constitute something like having the surgeon amputate the wrong foot or removing your spleen instead of that diseased gall bladder you've been complaining about for months? It was good news, bud, so lighten up!
Carol Jackson. Just when you think politicians couldn't create any more odious legislation, along comes Democratic Georgia state Senator Carol Jackson (D-Cleveland). She sponsored SB 20, the so-called HIV Assault Bill, that would "prohibit assault with body fluids, saliva or feces by a person infected with HIV or hepatitis against a peace officer or correctional officer." And Ms. Jackson thinks you should serve no less than five years in prison for spitting or slinging your feces around because, in her obtuse world view, this kind of thing is right up there with rape and murder. "They're deadly diseases," she says. "It's not like you're giving someone the flu." Actually, as rude as it is to spit and throw poop at anybody (not just the police and prison guards), this just isn't the way you give someone HIV or hepatitis, either. AIDS activists and health advocates attempted to educate the unenlightened politico, but she refused to abandon the legislation, opting to amend it by removing saliva from the list of offensive fluids. Ms. Jackson personifies everything that's wrong with the political process -- she spends valuable time drafting pointless, misinformed bills serving only to remind us that she's not especially bright and blissfully determined to remain that way.
Gregory A. Freeman. This freelance writer and former Associated Press employee wrote an article on "bug chasers" -- gay men who say they want to get infected with HIV -- for Rolling Stone magazine. Yes, these men exist. It's a minor phenomenon of the last decade. It's real. HIV prevention experts and public health officials acknowledged bug chasers about five years ago. Credible studies estimate that 1-2% of infected gay men sought out infection, nearly always in rash behavioral decisions that they later regretted.
But according to Freeman's Rolling Stone article, a mind-boggling 25% of new gay male HIV infections are due to bug chasing. Within days of publication, Freeman's story had completely fallen apart. The only two medical professionals quoted claim to have been grievously misquoted (conveniently, Freeman neglected to tape those interviews) and his remaining research consisted of one undeniably mentally disturbed anonymous source and lurid details from some Internet web sites (the kind where virtually all gay men claim to be hot and generously endowed). Is there a study to support that 25% figure? Nope. That aside, Freeman's estimate of the number of bug chaser-related cases of HIV infection ultimately discredits him. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that there are roughly 40,000 new HIV infections in the United States each year. For his calculations, Freeman uses the made-up 25% figure and merely applies it to the CDC's 40,000 statistic. From that, he concludes that 10,000 gay men a year are deliberately getting infected with HIV. Apparently, Freeman failed to realize the 40,000 statistic is for all people, male and female, regardless of sexual orientation. According to the CDC, male-to-male infections only make up 42% of the overall 40,000, or roughly 16,800. Not only does Freeman's 25% figure have no basis in reality, but he also applies it to a statistic he doesn't even understand. Note to Mr. Freeman: In the future, tape your interviews, leave the stories about HIV and gay men to qualified journalists and consider writing about cars or sports or Victoria's Secret models from now on unless your goal is to develop a reputation as a unethical, homophobic dumb ass.
Bill James. Following months of discussions about the growing number of HIV/AIDS cases in Mecklenburg County, N.C., a majority of commissioners there decided to appoint a task force to address the situation. Most commissioners expressed the need to explore all the culturally sensitive, measurable, innovative and legal options available to stem the deadly disease -- including increasing community awareness of high-risk behaviors and providing HIV/AIDS patients better access to health care. But Republican Commissioner Bill James couldn't resist delivering a stigmatizing rant: "If you didn't share needles and didn't have promiscuous sex, you wouldn't have AIDS. I, for the life of me, don't understand why folks get so upset when I say that the main transmission of AIDS is promiscuity and the sharing of needles." James, who really ought to avoid public speaking and consider a career as a mime, fails to understand that monogamous people can acquire HIV through unfaithful partners or that prevention efforts, education and early intervention have proven to be a lot more effective than public scolding. Mecklenburg County, N.C. has seen a steady increase in HIV cases in recent years. In 2000, 218 new HIV cases were reported. The number climbed to 259 in 2001 and jumped to 309 in 2002. What does it say about Bill James that his first reaction is to sit in judgment of all these folks?
Alec Erwin. In August, a six-member U.S. congressional delegation arrived in South Africa to gain some personal perspective on the AIDS epidemic in that country. When South African President Thabo Mbeki and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang snubbed them, South African Minister of Trade and Industry Alec Erwin agreed to meet the U.S. senators. Erwin told the delegation he does not believe the findings of studies that have shown that HIV/AIDS is adversely affecting the country's economy and life expectancy. Erwin characterized the situation as "well-managed" despite the fact that his own government previously refused to make AIDS drugs available through the public health system and President Thabo Mbeki spent years publicly denying that HIV causes AIDS. According to a variety of sources, including South Africa's own Department of Health, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Of more than 40 million South Africans, over 5 million were living with HIV or AIDS by the end of 2002. A recent World Bank report warns that South Africa's economy could collapse in several generations if the HIV/AIDS epidemic is not addressed more urgently. As Minister of Trade and Industry, Erwin has the power to negotiate licenses for HIV drugs in his country -- how will his views impact the import and licensing of lifesaving drugs?
Michelangelo Signorile. One of America's most vociferous and least credible gay journalists, Signorile routinely courts controversy. Last summer, he wrote an article declaring that HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns should avoid depicting the disease as "so manageable" that young gay men will begin to think contracting HIV "doesn't matter." Show them that the disease and the side effects of antiretroviral drug treatment are a "living hell," he admonished. Then he accused AIDS advocates of trying to combat the stigma associated with the disease by depicting HIV+ gay and bisexual men as "healthy, attractive and successful." We all know that prevention efforts are failing and in need of an extensive overhaul, but his "Living Hell" proposal is reminiscent of those campaigns to convince smokers that smoking leads to emphysema and cancer -- scare tactics aren't effective long-term strategies and ultimately undermine prevention's credibility. Besides the behavioral or psychological irrelevance of Signorile's rant, his message teaches no positive skills or risk reduction methods. Broken down, Signorile's "Living Hell" scenario is the equivalent of standing on a crowded beach and screaming, "Shark!"
Claude Allen. As Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Allen is the Bush administration's second-ranking health official. A leading proponent of abstinence-only sex education, Allen told those gathered for the 2003 National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta last July that "encouraging young people and young adults to abstain is the only appropriate initial strategy." Then, as if people didn't get it, he added, "Delaying sexual debut is the first message they should hear." We get it, Claude. Abstinence. No sex outside a traditional heterosexual marriage. We don't need no stinkin' condoms. Problem solved. Now would you be so kind as to explain why you, an African-American, would spend five years (1982-1987) working for Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) -- one of the most unapologetic racists in American history -- as an aide and campaign press secretary? What about Jesse Helms' offensive rhetoric, his opposition to affirmative action, his race-baiting reelection campaigns, his vote against the Martin Luther King holiday, his notorious lack of compassion for people living with HIV and AIDS? Because, you know, your thoughts on all that would be so much more interesting than your simplistic views on sex education.
Stephen Wolcott. Most of us have been taught that a missionary is a person sent by a church to some so-called less fortunate part of the world to carry on religious or humanitarian work. It goes something like this: "I'm here to show you how to boil your drinking water and convert you to Christianity." Africa Inland Missions (AIM) has been sending American missionaries to that continent for over a hundred years. According to their web site, AIM's goal is "to reach unreached peoples with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to plant maturing churches among those peoples." They've done some fine work, despite the fact that unreached is not a word. Stephen Wolcott is the executive officer for the Ugandan branch of AIM. Not content to declare the glory of God to the peoples of Africa, Wolcott now spreads the word about HIV. And what is the gospel according to Steve? "The only solution is abstinence. To get people to actually stop the AIDS pandemic, the solution is to not have sex until marriage." Wolcott and his missionaries even tell villagers that condoms do not work and they simply have to wait to have sex until marriage. When did lying become part of missionary work? A decade ago, Uganda was the epicenter of the global AIDS pandemic. It has since become the first African country to document a decline in HIV prevalence -- by more than 50% since 1992. How? Two nongovernmental organizations, The AIDS Support Organization (TASO) and The Straight Talk Foundation, have engaged the entire population in a frank discussion about sex and promoted a successful strategy known as ABC -- abstain, be faithful or use a condom. TASO has seven clinics providing counseling and basic medical services. The Straight Talk Foundation provides safe space for Ugandans to discuss masturbation, condoms and persistent myths about virginity (many Ugandan girls are told that they will grow a bone in their vagina if they do not have sex by age 15). Ugandans did all this without Stephen Wolcott's meddling and dishonesty. What would Jesus do, Steve? Maybe He'd bitch-slap you with a King James Version of the Bible.
The Catholic Church. All over the world, the Catholic Church is telling people not to use condoms. The Church opposes any kind of contraception and Pope John Paul II himself proclaims that the only divinely approved sex is the kind that happens in the context of a heterosexual marriage for the sole purpose of procreation. That's old news.
Now, in a desperate attempt to impose this morality upon the entire world, cardinals, bishops, priests and nuns across four continents have mounted a brazen campaign of intimidation and lies. Catholic clergy in Mexico publicly castigated that country's First Lady, Marta Sahugan, after she advocated the use of condoms for protection against HIV. Bishops accused her of spreading propaganda and called her "depraved." The president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, announced that HIV is smaller than sperm and can therefore pass right through a condom. Widespread scientific consensus disputes this, but when representatives of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization presented Cardinal Trujillo with evidence, he huffed, "They are wrong about that ... this is an easily recognizable fact." Then the archbishop of Nairobi, Raphael Ndingi Nzeki, added his two cents: "AIDS has grown so fast because of the availability of condoms." Reality check: condoms provide a highly effective barrier to HIV transmission. According to a mountain of research, condom use reduces the risk of HIV infection by at least 90%. In the remaining 10% of cases, the condom was used improperly, broke, slipped off or had passed its expiration date. Wanna know something that really doesn't work? Celibate priests.
David Salyer is an HIV+ journalist and AIDS educator living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads safer sex presentations for men and has facilitated workshops for people infected or affected by HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at CubScout@mindspring.com.