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Massachusetts: Symposium Explores HIV Denial, Conspiracy Theories

October 26, 2009

AIDS denialism -- the belief that HIV is not the causative agent of AIDS or that the AIDS pandemic is the result of a conspiracy -- is widespread and destructive, said researchers at a recent Harvard University symposium.

Challenging the role of HIV infection in AIDS, for example, discourages both testing and treatment, according to researchers who met at the school's Carpenter Center for Visual Arts. The symposium was held in conjunction with an exhibit of printed material produced by ACT UP/New York during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

People who subscribe to denialist beliefs are more likely to have symptoms of HIV, are less likely to embark on a treatment protocol, and are less likely to adhere to a medication regimen even if they do initiate care, the panelists said.

South Africa is the site of one of the most damaging instances of AIDS denialism. The audience learned how, acting on his denialist beliefs, former President Thabo Mbeki helped block the initiation of large-scale AIDS drug treatment in the country and thus allowed rapid expansion of the epidemic there. Mbeki's failure to distribute HIV drugs throughout his country between 2000 and 2005 brought about the unnecessary death of 330,000 people and HIV infection in 3,500 infants, research has estimated.

Denialist beliefs are particularly popular among black South African men, according to preliminary data presented by Nicoli Nattrass, director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit and economics professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

The Internet, with its unprecedented ability to spread and promote denialist beliefs, is a preferred source of denialist information, panelists said.

Also on the panel were Seth Kalichman, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, and Pride Chigwedere, a global health consultant and former Oak Foundation Research Fellow at Harvard AIDS Institute.

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Excerpted from:
Harvard Gazette (Harvard University)
10.20.2009; Alvin Powell

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