They are a small group, but they are well-funded, and they are dangerous. They include “real” scientists and medical professionals, people in other helping professions, the gravely ill and not so ill.
They are AIDS denialists, people who don’t think that HIV causes AIDS and believe that the drugs used to treat the illnesses in fact cause them.
Until last night I was aware of one denialist: Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa who tarnished Nelson Mandela’s legacy in so many ways. Mbeki caused the deaths of and hastened then end of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands because he refused to allow anti-retroviral drugs into the country, even when others were paying for them.
What I did not realize was how pervasive these people are, or how their dangerous views have killed so many. I learned a great deal from Professor Seth Kalichman’s lecture in support of his book Denying Aids: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy.
Kalichman spoke at Tabor House, a 20-year old ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph, which runs two residences for homeless people with HIV or AIDS. Kalichman displayed his passion for his topic with attacks on the scientists and pseudoscientists that promulgate eroneous theories about AIDS. He reserved his most pointed critique for men such as Peter Duesberg, a German who in the 1970s co-discovered the genetic link to cancer. I can’t wait to read the book to see if it explains how this seemingly brilliant man fell off a cliff and repudiated his own findings. Duesberg has not only become an AIDS denialist, he also denies the link between genetics and cancer. Based on my limited knowledge, vast numbers of women with BRAC1 and BRAC2, the genes linked to breast cancer, must have been awfully surprised to learn that little bit of information.
Kalichman prompted laughs among the 30 or so people in attendance when he said he adopted the pseudonym Joe Newton and went undercover, “sort of like a journalist,” to infiltrate the denialist movement. He then admitted that he had to have a writing coach for Denying Aids because he was accustomed to writing for other scientists, not the general public. I hate to break it to you, Prof. Kalichman, but if you can’t write for the general public, you’re not a journalist!
He reserved his compassion for the people who have died and are dying as a result of denialist propaganda. Even outside of Africa it seems, men and women who refused to take ARVs and turned to vitamins or other “cures” rely on misinformation from the denialists and are losing their lives as a result. I note with regret that the denialists on Prof. Kalichman’s blog resort to ad hominem attacks rather than presenting any facts to support their position.
And finally and most chillingly for me, he connected the dots from Holocaust deniers to climate change deniers to 9/11 “truthers.”
I bought a copy Denying AIDS and will give a full report when I’ve finished reading it.
P.S. The professor is donating all royalties from the sale of the book to a program that sends ARVs to Africa.