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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

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Chad (Jonesboro, AR) Thu., Jan. 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm UTC
AIDS/HIV should not receive tax money to be cured. It's 100% preventable. All you have to do is not take drugs and be abstinent until marriage. Why should my tax dollars go to some libtard who can't keep his/her legs closed?
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Comment by: Sick Tomystomach (Reality, Earth) Wed., Jan. 11, 2012 at 3:46 pm UTC
If HIV does not cause AIDS, I wonder if Duesberg and the rest of the denialists wouldn't mind being injected with it?
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Comment by: Confounded Society (Portland, OR) Wed., Dec. 28, 2011 at 12:28 pm UTC
Get to the point already. It sounded like an interesting article, but after reading the first page, I still have no clue who's denying that HIV exists or why. Started getting really preachy too. Not reading the rest.
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Comment by: Drew (Sydney) Mon., Dec. 26, 2011 at 11:53 pm UTC
I take offense to the term AIDS "Denialism". The term "Denialism" has always related to the horror of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis under Adolf Hitler.

By using the term "Denialism" Capitalists/Drug Companies/AIDS Corp are trying to discredit ALTERNATIVE VIEWS.

Sydney, Australia
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Comment by: Dave B. (London) Tue., Dec. 20, 2011 at 6:21 pm UTC
I am living with the illness and i find your attack on one man disturbing. Just put up the facts we are not stupid. Lets make an informed choice. We just want to be sure. Remember the Iraq war?
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Comment by: marissa (canada) Sun., Dec. 4, 2011 at 6:50 pm UTC
I think part of the reason ppl buy into denialism is that they don't want to admit they have a life altering disease. That happens with every illness. HIV, MS, cancer every disease. Denialism is dangerous
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Comment by: M J Brady (Pennsylvania) Thu., Oct. 27, 2011 at 2:24 pm UTC
Brilliant!! The total lack of logic and paranoia that is rampant in conspiracy theory world views is laughable and would be comic if they didn't also cause so much damage. What scares me is how many so called "educated" people become proponents of these hidden "truths"and that if only the rest of the misled world would follow their version of reality. The Internet is a great democratizer and a good place to try and track down information, but it is such a double edged sword. Now, many feel they are the "experts" and that any academy or established authority figure is always suspect or corrupt!! Should we blame the 1960's for the prevalence of this conspiracy world view that is prevalent in so many areas today? The author also pointed out the impossibility of debating adherents of these beliefs. The 9/11 conspiracy theorist people, holocaust denial groups, Area 52 people, the Zionist conspiracy,no childhood immunization people, etc.--- it's scary how a technical computer literate world is filled with so many such groups. I guess it's comforting to cloak yourself in the mantle of a crusader for truth and assume the rebel (underdog) role. Facts and reality don't compute for a rebel without a clue or an ideologue. Perhaps it's the fact that being human we have such little control over future events that cause the proliferation of so many of these groups. Any other ideas on this? Keep up the good work and keep people informed. I really liked your example of whether some one actually has the credentials to to back up their claims, especially in a scientific debate, and how the denialists often cherry pick their data.
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Comment by: Maxx (Seattle) Thu., Nov. 4, 2010 at 6:05 pm UTC
Why should anyone care about the words of some behavioral researcher? The denialist movement was started by nobel prize virologists. How about we give them the spotlight for a change?
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Comment by: Simon (Edinburgh) Tue., Nov. 2, 2010 at 4:57 am UTC

Howard Temin, the father of modern retrovirology: “when an experiment is challenged no matter who it is challenged by, it’s your responsibility to check. That is an ironclad rule of science, that when you publish something you are responsible for it…even the most senior professor, if challenged by the lowliest technician or graduate student, is required to treat them seriously and consider their criticisms. It is one of the most fundamental aspects of science"
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Comment by: Simon (Edinburgh) Tue., Nov. 2, 2010 at 3:24 am UTC
I dont have a particularly strong view on this, but I can not understand how you can compare them to holocaust deniers. That is so wrong. From what I read they are not denying HIV, but want more research into things like co factors. Science has always had this banter and thats how it develops. It should be good for HIV research. From a general public point of view, unless you can answer their questions fully, then areas are not going to get researched. Aids is not fully understood, and a lot is just theory, so it is important to instead of disregard all view points, and compare them to the holocaust denialists, disprove the theories. That is what it is all about. You cant accuse and insult people and fellow scientists in a childish manner, and refuse to debate, or even acknowledge anyones view point unless it fits your own criteria on research. That is not how science works, and if we still worked like this then the majority of this planet would have no medicine and think the world was still flat.
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Comment by: Snout (Melbourne AUS) Tue., Oct. 5, 2010 at 8:06 pm UTC
"Notborn yesterday" poses the pseudo-question, " how about enlightening readers about the German court case in which it was found that HIV had not been isolated". This is a good example of the kind of complete nonsense that denialists repeatedly copy-paste over the net without bothering to check if it's actually true or not.

The case was the criminal trial of a follower of prominent AIDS denialist Stefan Lanka, who was convicted of making threats of physical violence against public health officials. The person was fined and sentenced to 8 months prison.

Part of the summary of the case included an overview of the defendant's delusions. Lanka and his followers have then gone on to try to to claim this was the judgment of the court.

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Comment by: Fubara (Port harcourt. Nigeria) Tue., Dec. 29, 2009 at 11:05 am UTC
What i believe is that the disease is real and if not treated quickly, it might develop into AIDS. Just simply accept it if your are diagnosed positive or negative.
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Comment by: Mark Goldberg (New York, NY) Wed., Dec. 23, 2009 at 7:01 am UTC
Science requires ALL points of view, perspective and analysis. Your article is chilling as it is determined to take a side in this highly political and socio-economic issue. Why do you demonized critical thinking? Can no one speak out against the status quo? I question anyone who wants to silence or marginalize historical events like Tuskegee. This was one study. One. Can you deny how many scientists were involved throughout the '30's, '40's, '50's, '60's and into the '70's before humanity finally surfaced? There is plenty of evidence today of the frailty of this humanity in the name of many things, the least common denominator being science.
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Comment by: Notborn Yesterday (Australia) Wed., Nov. 11, 2009 at 3:09 am UTC
John, your comments are typical of the approach of adherents of mainstream philosophies and doctrines: malign, silence and persecute those who disagree, and who are often, decades later honoured for their brave stand that has finally been recognised as truth.

I've read the first couple pages in detail and scanned the rest. All I find is unsupported assertions, character assassination and psychobabble.

Nothing in the article appears to actually address and refute the SPECIFIC statements of so-called "denyers". Just for starters, how about enlightening readers about the German court case in which it was found that HIV had not been isolated, and otherwise healthy people who had been found "positive" through a flawed, non-specific test were put on a regime of a deadly drug which induced AIDS and killed them (Google "HIV_Never_Isolated.htm"). This one's all over the 'net, so if its a hoax why don't you say so (and prove it conclusively)?

I'm open to both sides of the debate, but this article only serves to strengthen my belief that the ruling opinion of the day has insufficient evidence to support it.

Open debate - and I mean properly open and uncensored - can only serve to arrive at the truth.

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Comment by: steve (uk) Fri., Sep. 18, 2009 at 2:06 am UTC
this page is just another a platform for promoting the AIDS propaganda that has so far washed the minds of millions of people into believing thre is a vicious virus on the rampage. Where are the scarily predicted deaths in the western world? Where are the HIV deaths in Africa? Just like the swine flu BS, the deaths that are reported always show the person was suffering from other conditions at point of death - TB, malaria, malnutrition etc., etc.. AIDS/HIV is a grotesque, money-spinning circus and anybody believing the establishment nonsense that 'millions are living on a knife-edge' should go get themselves educated and start by reading the credence book 'the truth about HIV'
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Comment by: Amdani Juma (African Institute AISD, Eastmidlands UK) Sun., Aug. 9, 2009 at 8:26 pm UTC
What a fantastic piece of work. I too have met a lot of people who deny HIV in my everyday work in the communty and sadly these are my african brothers and sisters. I am sure your excellent work will bring more awareess to those and it seems to me that we are getting there and what needed at the moment is more debate in our community settings. HIV can progress to develop AIDS and it doesn't help to deny scientific facts. We have best treatments for HIV in the UK and doctors will only help people who turn up for test ing and accepting to face the reality of HIV/AIDS. Your work does start the debate and we must sustain it as much as we can. African HIV policy Network in the UK can also play a role in this debate.
Thanks alot
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Comment by: gloria (nigeria) Fri., Aug. 7, 2009 at 9:35 am UTC
hmmmm HIV is real, and u can be heal again with God if you beleave it. In Jer 30 Vs 17 God promised us health again "He said i'll restore health back to you again" so you see if you beleav you will be well again
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Comment by: kotilingaswar (prakasam) Mon., Jul. 20, 2009 at 12:56 pm UTC
first of all thanks for scientists. please immediately discover the drug so many peoples are suffering from hiv-aids.
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Comment by: David (New Jersey) Mon., Jul. 20, 2009 at 12:16 am UTC
Regarding Arthur Gittleman statement about prednisolone. This drug supresses/prevents cell mediated responses which is the very problem HIV causes in the body. To me, it seems counterintuitive that this drug would "slow the progression of HIV." Further, while it is obvious that drug manufacturers invest and also make huge amount of money by marketing so-called anti-HIV drugs, why would some scientists who are not biased or motivated by profit, unwilling to test this drug and demonstrate its' efficacy utilizing scientific method. Further, the author discusses IMMU-25, used in India which demonstrated "positive results." What were the so-called positive results CHIEVED IN THESE PATIENTS. I would certainly like to know the citation in a scientific journal which published this information.
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Comment by: Cory (Sacramento, CA) Sun., Jul. 5, 2009 at 4:30 am UTC
This article upsets me so much because I was infected by a guy who doesn't believe HIV exists and that HIV doesn't kill people but rather HIV medication. It's so hard to believe that there are people out there who believe this.
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Comment by: Seth Kalichman (Connecticut) Fri., Jun. 26, 2009 at 2:11 pm UTC
I met Peter Duesberg and spent a couple days at a conference with him to research my book Denying AIDS. Duesberg is married. His wife, Siggi Duesberg is very close to him. I think they must have met in Germany in the early 1960s before coming here. I don't know that but I think so. I do not know if they have kids, but I think not. Duesberg is actually a very engaging man. He is personable and in some ways actually charming.
So in those ways, you are bit off mark. But you are right on spot otherwise. He is narcissistic and self-absorbed. He definitely makes the case against lifetime tenure without review. He has no place in higher education. He ignores the rules of science. He has no regard for the consequences of his actions. I felt he was sexually inappropriate in his comments to young women, although I am sure he thought he was being funny. Just as I am sure he thinks he is being funny when he refers to gay men as “homos". I can say that those couple days at his conference were so valuable to me. I feel I got some insight into Peter Duesberg. I now hope to never see him again.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: abdul (berkeley, ca) Fri., Oct. 7, 2011 at 2:53 am UTC
hey Seth, you psycho nut-job, why don't you tell everyone how you used some ridiculous fake name to gain entry into the inner sanctum of the AIDS deniers. LOL! Everyone knew who you were ya idiot, even if you used some fake name. There is an urban myth that many people go into psychology to figure out their own warped mind. Obviously, this is your case. Concentrate on your diet and exercise program and stop bothering people with your mental illness.

Comment by: john (chicago) Tue., Jun. 23, 2009 at 10:48 pm UTC
Duesberg is a moron and he should be fired from the university of california. If he had to work for a living (like the rest of us!) and risked being fired, he wouldn't be so self indulgent and continue to spout such nonsense. i would love to hear about his personal life. I imagine that Duesberg is a compete marriage, no relationship cause he's unable to relate, unable to really hear others or care about others. Just repeats odd bits from long ago. He's happy just to get attention even though it's because he's a complete disaster. Why doesn't someone try him for murder? he's truly responsible for so many deaths...sad pathetic man, with sad pathetic followers. This is an important interview. Only a psychologist can understand these people. There is something so wrong with people who deny what is obvious.
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Comment by: Sergio (Brazil) Tue., Jun. 16, 2009 at 8:08 am UTC
An answer to T. Rex:

I was diagnosed in 1991 and became a denialist until my life was almost taken by HIV in 2001. By that time, my CD4 count dropped to 44 and I got Pneumocistosis (a common AIDS-related disease). After 21 days in the hospital, I was discharged and immediately started HIV meds, gaining 40 pounds in two months... my CD4 load is now 660 and I am healthier than never. The toxicity of HIV pills is decreasing day by day...actually after 3 months taking them (back in 2001) I never experienced side efects. I have a three years old daughter and a fulfilling and great life. So, I just want to warn you: Beware to not recognize the HIV reality too late...After the grave there is no further step!!!
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Comment by: mazy (Trinidad & Tobago) Mon., Jun. 15, 2009 at 5:55 pm UTC
Every time I hear or see someone die of this disease, I wonder about the denialists, how do they explain the suffering and destructive nature of this disease. Such intelligent people should do better things with their time and efforts! How do they explain the deaths of Christine Maggiore, her daughter and the mothers who died, and infected their babies in Africa? I came across a website (can't remember the name) on denialists, seems to me quite a lot of them died from the very disease they were denying.
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Comment by: T.rex (Los Angeles) Mon., Jun. 15, 2009 at 5:07 pm UTC
Plain and simple, i don't take the meds, and me and people like me are healthier than those who do.

One can look at a person on meds, and know that that person is sick. First of all, that person believes they are sick, so really, it can't be any other way. They are fulfilling their own prophecy. And in addition to that morbid belief, they are ingesting admittedly very toxic pills.

This whole article is misguided. It acts as if dissidents are trying to peddle some crazy idea for financial gain. Nothing can be further from the truth. All the dissidents i know are simply people who were deemed by doctors to be poz, and they don't accept this diagnosis. The movement is no longer Duesberg. The movement is by people who experience the truth, first hand. People like me have nothing to gain other than hoping others see the light. The dissident movement is about helping fellow man.

How presumptuous of Western Medicine to claim that there is absolutely no way to battle hiv, except for triple cocktails. There is no single method for anything in this world. If it works for you... good for you... But don't deny that dissident are doing something that works for them.
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Comment by: nora (s.carolina) Mon., Jun. 15, 2009 at 12:55 pm UTC
Richard, at the beginning scientists are often mistaken...scientific discoveries are slow...they still don't fully understand HIV...but now they really do understand that HIV can take over someone's immune system and if you don't suppress the virus, the person will die of opportunistic infections. This has been shown millions of times...So Duesberg is a quack. He's not some hidden genius or anything. Just a really self-absorbed guy who is only employed at the university of california cause he has tenure. He's astonishingly narcissistic and irresponsible. He is no longer a "scientist" cause he dismisses the scientific process...and he makes up stuff. It's not based on data. There is no clinical data for any of his nonsense. He's a science fiction kind of guy now...The truth about HIV is empirical at this point. Go to an inner city emergency room and watch all the undiagnosed HIV positive people with opportunisitic infections. When they get antiretroviral treatment they get better. Empirical. Talk to people who get HIV medications from -- they are getting a chance to live because of the medications. Stop talking and go look.
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Comment by: Seth C. Kalichman (Hartford, CT) Sun., Jun. 14, 2009 at 4:04 am UTC
Thank you all for your interest.
Seekyah’s comment made me think to let you know that I am very interested in hearing the stories of people living with HIV who had been lured into believing Christine Maggiore, Peter Duesberg and other AIDS Denialists. If you or someone you know had been a ‘dissident’ and no longer is, please contact me. Thanks again!
Seth Kalichman
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Comment by: Richard (Melbourne) Sat., Jun. 13, 2009 at 7:38 am UTC
Doctors once thought scurvy, beri-beri, rickets etc were infectious diseases. Those who argued against this were considered quacks too.
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Comment by: Seekyah (Las Vegas) Fri., Jun. 12, 2009 at 1:34 am UTC
My husband was in denial. When I had ask him before we became involved he said he didn't have the virus. He use to shoot up and there were rumors. I remember clearly stating to him I really need to know because I want to live to raise my daughter. That was 1998 in 2007 I was diagnosed with AIDS. The only reason I got tested was because he became sick. I never drank, smoke or did drugs. I trusted him because I knew him since childhood. I pray every day for a cure.
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Comment by: Eddy (United Kingdom) Thu., Jun. 11, 2009 at 7:10 pm UTC
Thank you very much for this excellent long interview. May it stay on the internet as long as HIV exists and may it be very visible and much visited! I have encountered AIDS denialists on the internet myself and the ones I encountered were bright, articulate, and very aggressive. They told me, a person who is an educated postgraduate, that I am a fool. They made me FEEL like a fool. They succeeded in making me feel stupid and actually pausing to consider that maybe they were right. Well, being as educated as I am I immediately did a MASSIVE amount of research and discovered that the denialists are all as portrayed in the interview above: delusional. But what then absolutely outraged me was the realization that they are succeeding in making contact with vulnerable people, those HIV+ people who WILL be taken in by them and whose lives will therefore be placed in jeopardy. AIDS denialism kills. AIDS denialism should be made a criminal offence.
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Comment by: Arthur Gittleman (Bella Vista, AR) Thu., Jun. 11, 2009 at 4:34 pm UTC
This psychologist does not seem very scientic. You may say he is using Voodoo. I have followed the denalists and do not think they are stupid. Why they are denalists I would not know from this psychologists information. Don't really care but I do find some of the information they quote helpful.

Latest has been on lymph node fibrosis. Interesting is that this can be caused by other virus besides HIV. It can caused CD4 cell depletion.

The comment on herbal remedes have never been proven to work against HIV. I assume the author means not approved by FDA. Since herbal remedes have been around 3 to 5 thousand years and the FDA around 100 years I would think alot of them are unproven. But what do we mean by unproven. Well in the case of HIV which uses HAART that means billion of dollars were not spent on herbal medicine in the area of HIV and not that it is not proven only that medicine is big business.

One could point to small trials given to Prednisolone 5mg that show to slow the progression of HIV. But there is no patent anylonger on this drug. So what the author means unauthorized by FDA and not unproven. There is also IMMU-25 created in India used at hospital for 18 months that showed positive results. Was created for poor people. As what most people in thw world use poor people medicine and not the medicine used in the United States that is rich people's medicine. Poor people medicine does not need to be approved by the FDA. As matter of fact only a small number of large megacorporations could possible use the FDA three phase method. So when people loosely say unproven they mean the process by which a few large corporations get there FDA approval, so most things are unproven.

Looking at the latest politics in health care we see that it will be very difficult to control costs since that are only a few drug manufacturers allowed to play in this game of competition. And these corporations limit the game that is being played. All they want is more profit.
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Comment by: John Boucher (West Hollywood, CA) Thu., Jun. 11, 2009 at 4:03 pm UTC
I would like to thank The Body and Dr. Kalichman for this important podcast. My late Partner, Rex Poindexter, was a follower of Christine Maggiore's, he did change his mind at the end of his life but it was too late. I took an HIV+ Writing Workshop at The LA Gay & Lesbian Center, there I wrote an essay entitled "Speaking in Tongues" it was published by Washburn University and won the 2009 award for best Creative nonfiction. It is gratifying but I wish Rex were still alive and I had written about his recovery instead of his death.
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