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This Month in HIV: A Podcast of Critical News in HIV

This Month in HIV: The Truth About HIV/AIDS Denialism

An Interview With Clinical Psychologist Seth Kalichman, Ph.D.

June 2009

This podcast is a part of the series This Month in HIV. To subscribe to this series, click here.

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Seth Kalichman, Ph.D., professor of social psychology at the University of Connecticut
Does HIV really exist? And if it does exist, can it cause harm?

They're ridiculous questions, of course. If you're reading this, there's a 99.9 percent chance you agree that HIV does exist and it can cause harm. After all, the virus has been isolated in laboratories.1,2 We have blood tests that can determine how much of the virus lives inside a person's body.3-5 Scientists have even taken pictures and videos of it.6

And, of course, there is also the terrible, mind-numbing, physical proof of what HIV can do. Globally, more than 25 million people have died from the virus in the past 30 years, and 33 million people are estimated to be living with HIV right now.7


Just 12 years ago, being diagnosed with HIV was almost invariably a death sentence in the developed world.

But then, right around 1996, the skies cleared, hope spread and men and women started regaining weight and strength. Thanks to focused research, amazing scientific discoveries and the tireless work of activists, combination antiretroviral therapy brought new life to HIV-positive people who thought they had none left. Within a few years the AIDS floors in AIDS-designed hospitals throughout the U.S. emptied out.

Many HIV-positive people who took these new antiretroviral medications shook off death and slowly regained their energy.8 Some even grew strong enough to return to work and some HIV-positive women felt confident enough to fulfill their dream of having a child. This transformation was one of the most amazing success stories of modern medicine.

Speak to a person living with HIV who survived the early years of the epidemic, and you can still hear the wonder in his or her voice, as well as sense the mourning and even disbelief with respect to the hundreds of thousands of people who suffered a nightmarish litany of illnesses and died and couldn't partake in the miracle.

Yet there exists a small group of people oblivious to these remarkable successes. And it's not a world of people with any actual hands-on experience: None work in HIV medicine providing care or conducting HIV research. None seem to have witnessed the miraculous rebound of so many HIV-positive people after their initiation of HAART [highly active antiretroviral therapy]. None of them volunteer or work for any of the hundreds of HIV/AIDS organizations across the U.S. catering mostly to poor and underinsured people living with HIV. None are AIDS activists who have transformed HIV care and policy.

No, these people scoff from afar at the successes against HIV. They call themselves "AIDS dissidents." We in the HIV community call them "denialists." They are led somewhat indirectly by a tenured professor named Peter Duesberg, who is not a medical doctor. Together, this small but vocal group of people write and theorize and blog. It's like a hobby for them.

And even though they have no hands-on experience -- remember they have no medical training and no first-hand experience with patient care -- they claim to know more about HIV than all the HIV physicians, nurses and activists in the world. Among their claims is that HIV does not cause AIDS, because either HIV does not exist9 or, if it does exist, it is harmless.10 Other denialists claim that HIV tests aren't accurate.11

Denying AIDS by Seth Kalichman, Ph.D.

Denying AIDS by Seth Kalichman, Ph.D. To view an excerpt from Denying AIDS, click here.

In the denialists' conspiratorial worldview, we've all been bought off -- I've been bought off, all the HIV specialists, all the HIV nurses, all the HIV organizations in the entire world have been bought off. Anyone who doesn't agree with them they imply is corrupt, has no integrity, has no humanity and is in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry.

It's an impossible scenario, if you think about it. No one can control that many people. But they believe it and they are looking for willing recruits who'll buy into their theories.

Every now and again, this group wins a dollop of attention from the media. But this attention is always short-lived and the denialist movement retreats back into well-deserved obscurity.

So why am I talking about them? Because even though they're irrelevant, they can still do damage. Each HIV-positive person who is pulled in by their misinformation and ends up not starting life-saving HIV treatment is one life that may be lost. Denialists can only be ignored to a certain extent. It's our responsibility to inform the world about HIV, and that includes informing the world about the harmful information that denialists dish out.

The question is: Why do these people do what they do? Why do they continue to deny the truth about HIV and AIDS? Why do they persist in the face of overwhelming evidence? We'll be looking at this subject in this, as well as the next, episode of This Month in HIV. First, we'll meet someone who went underground and learned how this group works. In our next episode, we'll talk to patients who have been duped by them and well-known activists who have dealt with them.

So let me welcome clinical psychologist Seth Kalichman, who is also a professor of social psychology at the University of Connecticut. He recently completed a fascinating book, titled Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy, in which he looked into this odd group of people. He'll try to help us understand how the AIDS denialist movement came to be and what keeps it going.

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Copyright © 2009 Body Health Resources Corporation. All rights reserved. Podcast disclaimer.

This podcast is a part of the series This Month in HIV. To subscribe to this series, click here.


This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
See Also
More on AIDS Denialism


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