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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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Could you talk a little bit about some of the people who are financing AIDS denialism? Who are these people and why would they finance such a thing?

Those are questions that a lot of people are asking and for which there aren't a lot of answers. It does cost money to do some of these things. Rethinking AIDS has employed a publicist. They travel. There's money that's involved in some of these things. It doesn't cost any money to set up a Web site. I did it over Christmas break, though it does take time to maintain a Web site. You don't see a lot of young, productive people in AIDS denialism. You see them blogging, but a lot of the people that are most visible are pretty old. A lot of them are retired or academic emeriti. You don't see non-tenured faculty at universities too involved in this. And when you do, they're not there for very long.

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Where is the money coming from? It's pretty clear that there are people that make donations. At the Alberta Reappraising AIDS Society and at Rethinking AIDS, you can donate. How much anyone donates, I've no idea. We know that there have been venture capitalists, particularly with political bents, interestingly enough from the libertarian party, who have financed some things.

For example, we know that the San Francisco-based venture capitalist Robert Leppo co-produced what was essentially a major motion picture [The Other Side of AIDS] directed by Christine Maggiore's husband, Robin Scovill, about basically her story. That's public knowledge. We know that because it's on there.

It's also true that Robert Leppo is financing Peter Duesberg's cancer lab. Now how do we know that? Well, because it's well-disclosed in the program for Peter Duesberg's cancer conference that I went to. And he was there. This didn't require any undercover investigative work.

There is money that is flowing through venture capitalists who have bought into this and who see maybe a way to make some money by selling, perhaps, herbal remedies or other products in place of antiretrovirals, or by selling books that are published by fringe publishers.

"Another thing that's happening in terms of money is that denialists are very involved in undermining charities and programs, particularly the (RED) campaign. They're very active in trying to get people to not buy (RED) products (Bono's venture that involves the Gap, etcetera), part of the proceeds of which go to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria."

Venture capitalists by definition want to make money. They don't just want to give money away. They're sort of betting on things. But that's all I know. And again, I only know that because it's in the public domain. You don't have to look very far to find this.

Another thing that's happening in terms of money is that denialists are very involved in undermining charities and programs, particularly the (RED) campaign. They're very active in trying to get people to not buy (RED) products (Bono's venture that involves the Gap, etcetera), part of the proceeds of which go to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The other thing that they're very involved in right now are lawsuits. They're trying to get individuals who were administered post-exposure prophylaxis (i.e., someone who was exposed to HIV and then given antiretrovirals to try to prevent the infection from happening) to sue those hospitals and doctors, as well as the pharmaceutical companies that produce the antiretrovirals, for supposedly exposing them to toxic drugs to prevent an infection that supposedly no one can prove would even happen.

They haven't won any cases that I know of. But among them are lawyers who are dedicating time to doing this. The testimony is provided by these "world-renowned" scientists like Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick.

The good news is, as far as I can tell, they haven't gotten any traction. I'm not even aware of cases being settled, but I know that there are still cases pending.

They're also pretty involved in creating defenses for people who are being prosecuted for exposing others to HIV, saying that their exposing people to HIV is harmless because there's no proof that HIV even causes AIDS. They're serving as expert witnesses in these cases, so there's money involved there.

There was a case like that in Australia that they lost.

That's right. The Parenzee case was the most celebrated case.29 American scientists flew out to Australia to rebut the denialists' testimonies, particularly that of the Perth Group, which was very involved in the case. You had the whole array of denialists testifying on Parenzee's behalf, and then you had some of the world's greatest AIDS scientists rebutting them.

The good news is the judge didn't accept most of the denialists as legitimate authorities, as legitimate scientists, and didn't accept their testimony.30 The bad news is they're distracting. They're spending a lot of people's time. They're wasting a lot of our resources. They're distracting a lot of scientists from their work. They're doing a lot of damage.

However, they aren't making great traction in places where it could count. They've been trying to persuade Congress; they've targeted specific Congressmen and women, trying to gain their attention and their time. They've done a lot of damage, but they don't have the credibility to really take a big leap.

A lot of people are aware that they were successful in stopping antiretroviral clinical trials with children in New York City.31,32 That's probably one of the most destructive things that they've actually been able to achieve in a long time.

So I don't want to say that they're not doing damage, that no one's paying attention to them. That wouldn't be true. But in terms of big policy issues and infiltrating the criminal justice system and having cases overturned, they haven't made that traction yet.

Let's talk about pharmaceutical company money. Did you receive money from pharmaceutical companies to write the book and to speak about this issue?

In the book, I disclose all of my potential involvement in "conspiracies" in the very front. I've never had any funding from pharmaceutical companies, but I do accept pens and notepads from them when I go to conferences. I've never been funded by the Gates Foundation, but I do use Microsoft products. I am funded by the NIH. All of my research is funded by the NIH and I suspect that makes me corrupt in the eyes of the denialists.

Pharmaceutical companies have no involvement in anything that I do. I've never taken money from them. The really cool thing about my book Denying AIDS is that all of the royalties are being donated to buy antiretroviral therapies in Africa. There's an organization called the Family Treatment Fund and they will get all of the royalties for the book.

Let's talk about the people who aren't able to make decisions from an educated point of view. I knew a young man who couldn't understand the discussion about HIV. He decided to listen to Gary Null who's a vitamin salesman in New York. Gary Null has a book and a movie about AIDS and he says that you shouldn't take HIV medications because they're toxic.

So this young man stopped his medications and he started seeing a healer for $60 a week who would lay hands on him and within two years, he was dead. What do we do about people like that, who can't make heads or tails about all of this noise and all this argument?

"'What mattered to me as [a] person living with HIV was to be told that HIV did not cause AIDS. That was nice. Of course, it was like printing money when the economy is not doing well. Or pissing in your pants when the weather is too cold. Comforting for a while but disastrous in the long run.'"

Winstone Zulu, a Zambian AIDS activist and former denialist

I'm very familiar with Gary Null. His book is impossible to read. It's not written in a known language. It's what psychiatrists would call a word salad. It's as if you took a bunch of words, put them in a blender and poured them on a page. It's an unreadable book. That's what makes it so criminal, because it's completely uninterpretable and looks scientific, and really persuades people to purchase his vitamins and foods. There aren't a whole lot of people that are profiting off of this, but Gary Null is one.

It's pretty destructive. He's another one of these charismatic, convincing people. So how do we take better care of the people that these guys, particularly people like Gary Null, get their hooks into? The best thing we can do for these people is to be supportive of them and direct them to good information to try to balance it out.

I think fighting with people, arguing with them, debating and going back and forth is not productive when they've really gotten involved in the denialism, and they go to the Rethinking AIDS site, and they've read Henry Bauer's book, which is almost readable, and they've read Celia Farber's articles.

When someone has really gotten into this, it's extremely easy to argue and debate; it'll just never get you anywhere. The best thing to do is to say that that's one perspective.

But if they're really serious about "rethinking," if they're really serious about being critical and not just accepting what's being spoon-fed to them from the medical establishment and the "orthodoxy," they shouldn't be doing that with Alive & Well either.

We need to present alternatives to broaden their thinking and have a conversation, not a debate, about all perspectives.

What we would really like is for someone to go to a doctor, not to give up their acupuncturist and their homeopathy, but to go to a doctor as well; to think about complementary treatment, as well as adjunct treatment, as well as alternative treatment.

That's what I think is most helpful. We would like for people to be proactive. We'd like for them to take antiretrovirals, but for a lot of people it's just not going to happen. What Elisabeth Kübler-Ross says is that, sometimes, you just have to be there for people, be able to be supportive of them, when they are shaken from their denial. Sometimes that's just the best that we can do.

You have an amazing quote at the beginning of Denying AIDS. It's from Winstone Zulu, a Zambian AIDS activist and former denialist. He says, "What mattered to me as [a] person living with HIV was to be told that HIV did not cause AIDS. That was nice. Of course, it was like printing money when the economy is not doing well. Or pissing in your pants when the weather is too cold. Comforting for a while but disastrous in the long run."

Yes, I think it really says it all. I have an author's blog for the book and I put it at the top. Whenever I go to the blog, I think about using that space for something different, but I won't remove it. I think it just says it all.

He was on President Mbeki's infamous 2000 AIDS panel as a consumer. He really was a denialist. He was a very vocal activist in Africa.

He got really sick. He got a number of fungal infections and it sort of shook him. He said, "What the hell am I doing? People are saying there are medications that can help me. This is going to kill me." Shaken, he completely reversed course and now he's one of the great vocal advocates for expanding HIV treatments in Africa.

Amazing.

Yes, it's a great quote. I think it says it all.

Yes. Thank you so much, Seth, for taking the time to talk with me. This is such a huge subject. There's so much to talk about. Hopefully people will get inspired to buy your book, to read the excerpt, to look at your Web site and to go to AIDSTruth.org in order to find out more about this. Thank you so much.

If you were once a "dissident," or if you know someone who used to be one, please contact Seth Kalichman. E-mail him at aidsandbehavior@yahoo.com.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Resources: Countering AIDS Denialism

AIDStruth.org
In 2006, a group of activists and scientists launched a Web site to address some of the denialists' claims. AIDStruth.org receives no pharmaceutical company funding and is maintained through the hard work and volunteer efforts of dedicated researchers and activists.

AIDS Denialists: How to Respond (May 5, 2000)
This article was written by John James, a dedicated, early HIV/AIDS activist and one of the earliest disseminators of trustworthy HIV/AIDS research.
From AIDS Treatment News

Foo Fighters Front Man Dave Grohl Wants You to Forget What You Think You Know About AIDS (February 25, 2000)
A platinum-selling alt-rock group may be endangering its fans by promoting a dangerous myth.
From MotherJones.com

Quack Record: Best-Selling Health and Fitness Guru Gary Null Weighs in on AIDS (May 21, 2002)
Longtime HIV survivor Peter Kurth says that almost all of what Gary Null says is useless, dangerous and just plain wrong.
From Salon.com

AIDS Denialists Who Have Died
Tragically, there have been many men and women caught in the denialists' web of confusion. Most of their deaths are not documented; here are some that AIDStruth.org has documented.
From AIDStruth.org

Study Cites Toll of AIDS Policy in South Africa (November 25, 2008)
A Harvard study estimates that the S. African government could have prevented the premature deaths of 365,000 people if it had provided HIV medications. The former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki was an AIDS denialist.
From The New York Times

The Controversy Over HIV and AIDS (December 9, 1994)
A thorough examination of the arguments of Peter Duesberg by respected journalist Jon Cohen.
From Science

For additional information about AIDS denialism, browse through our library of articles.

Learn the History of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

Oral Histories on the AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco
To read or hear first-person accounts of the history of the HIV epidemic, check out this incredible resource.

The ACT UP Oral History Project
Watch video interviews about HIV from true heroes in the fight against HIV.

To read more about the history of HIV/AIDS, browse through our library of articles.


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


  

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