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Don't Believe the Hype

By Gary Bell

January 19, 2010

I recently ended a very frustrating e-mail correspondence with a well meaning, yet uninformed woman who originally contacted me to sing the praises of a herbalist who she claims has cured HIV (and lupus and cancer, by the way). In response to my polite skepticism, she directed me to his website where the "documentation" of his alleged success (and no doubt the pictures from his Nobel prize for medicine) could be found. Needless to say, I found no concrete evidence that his treatments cured anything, let alone HIV. Most troubling was her insistence that his claims were "proven." It reminds me of another conversation with a gentleman who read a book written by a dietitian who claimed that he had evidence that there was no link between HIV and AIDS. Supporting his claim were 1500 people who placed their name in the book indicating support of this theory. Not one, of course, held any reputable position at any research institution or university.

Those of us who have worked in the HIV/AIDS field have experienced communication with people who are convinced that there is a cure for HIV and that either:

  1. The Government has it and wants black people to die so they are hiding it or;
  2. The Pharmaceutical companies have it but want people to keep spending money on medication or;
  3. Some other individual (usually an alternative medicine professional) has it but the government and pharmaceutical companies have banded together to stop it from being distributed.

We call these beliefs: "Conspiracy Theories." The troubling thing about these theories is less that a few individuals will submit to an unproven treatment and possibly have their hopes dashed, but that many of us are so willing to believe in theories and claims with so little basis in fact. Moreover, their cynicism makes HIV prevention efforts that much harder.

I pray that, one day, a cure for HIV/AIDS is found. However, HIV is a very difficult viral adversary, perhaps one of the most difficult that we have every encountered. Many of the greatest minds in the world have been struggling, without success to find a vaccine or a cure. Maybe, one day, someone will find a natural substance or treatment that will cure HIV. But, shouldn't that individual be required to subject that treatment to the rigors of science to prove, not only that it works, but that it doesn't harm the patient? Don't get me wrong, I believe that we should should not blindly believe everything we are told. Moreover, there are many non-medication treatments such as acupuncture and light therapy (for Seasonal Affective Disorder) that work! Yet, why are we so willing to embrace treatments that have never fully been studied, but reject those with reams of documented evidence supporting them -- not just for HIV, but for other conditions such as mental illnesses? Many cite the Tuskegee study as the underlying reason for this skeptisism, but many people to whom I speak, have never even heard of the Study. Clearly, the scientific and medical communities have a long way to go to regain the trust of the American Public. Until it does, we will continue to see people shun, and even reject modern medicine, often to our detriment.

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