Thursday, July 06, 2006

AIDS (Hype) at 25


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

Even though I have been writing, reporting, talking and being an activist around AIDS for over two decades, I was still taken aback by the hype surrounding the 25th anniversary of Los Angeles-based Dr. Michael Gottlieb’s report in the June 5, 1981 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report — the charmingly named newsletter of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — announcing the first five cases of what has since come to be called AIDS. The Los Angeles Times ran an elaborate series of articles called “AIDS at 25,” ranging from pieces on the fate of the AIDS quilt and the disappearance of red ribbons at awards shows and celebrity galas to alleged new epidemics in places like China. Newsweek did a cover story, also called “AIDS at 25.” PBS ran a two-part, four-hour presentation of the AIDS epic on its Frontline series.

All of these presentations, of course, followed what TV journalist John Hockenberry once called “the gospel of the AIDS establishment.” If you read these articles or watched these programs, you were told that the so-called Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the sole and exclusive cause of AIDS; that HIV exposure invariably leads to infection, AIDS and an early death; that the standard so-called “HIV tests” (really tests for antibodies to all or some of the nine proteins believed to make up HIV) can tell you with 99-plus percent certainty whether this dire fate will befall you; that since 1996 “lifesaving” medications have been available that will delay the “progression” from HIV to AIDS and death, and that though they may have a number of unpleasant “side” effects these are certainly preferable to letting untreated HIV ravage your body, smash your immune system to smithereens and leave you vulnerable to all sorts of horrible “opportunistic infections,” many of them lethal.

Regular readers of Zenger’s know that I don’t believe any of that for a moment, and I’ve frequently interviewed and covered credentialed scientists like Peter Duesberg, David Rasnick, Kary Mullis, Stefan Lanka, Charles Thomas, Roberto Giraldo and others who have a very different view of what AIDS is, what causes it, how it should be treated and what should be done to stop its spread. Though those scientists don’t always agree with each other, they have one thing in common: the AIDS establishment — the junta of failed cancer researchers who were put in charge of AIDS research almost as soon as the syndrome was first identified; the authorities in the U.S. government and the United Nations who quickly proclaimed HIV the “truth” about AIDS and suppressed scientific inquiry into any other possible causes; the giant pharmaceutical companies who are making tons of money off those supposedly “lifesaving” drugs; and the activists, non-governmental organization officials and other do-gooders who think they’re doing the world a favor by raising money to pay the big drug companies to provide these medications to the Third World — has moved heaven and earth to try to shut them up.

Though the scientific critique of the HIV/AIDS model is almost as old as the alleged HIV/AIDS connection itself — HIV was first politically proclaimed as the cause of AIDS in April 1984 and the first scientific article challenging the model, Peter Duesberg’s “Retroviruses as Carcinogens and Pathogens: Expectations and Reality” (, was published in October 1987 — it’s almost never acknowledged in the mainstream media. At times the suppression becomes ridiculous, as it did when a few years after the so-called “cocktail therapies,” including protease inhibitors, were introduced in 1996, large numbers of patients started experiencing their frequently horrific side effects — ranging from sunken faces and swollen bellies to chronic diarrhea, toxic liver failure and death. “Nobody thought these drugs would have these effects!” the establishment scientists whined — and journalists, acting as their mouthpieces as usual, repeated the claim. Actually, somebody — the dissident scientists in general and David Rasnick, a Ph.D. chemist whose entire professional career had been as a protease researcher, in particular — had warned about these effects, both in professional journals and when I interviewed him in these pages. But nobody outside a handful of people who’d stumbled across the dissident critique of AIDS noticed.

What’s happening in AIDS today is a peculiar duality, as an establishment bloated with success and profits selling a dubious theory and ruthlessly suppressing alternatives is being confronted with an increasingly disinterested public. In a real sense, AIDS is over. The epidemic is history. Since 1993, AIDS in the developed world has been endemic: though there’ve been a few year-to-year fluctuations and the occasional uptick, the numbers of new diagnoses have trended steadily downward. The trendy celebrities who used to wear those red ribbons to the Academy Awards have moved on to trendier causes: breast cancer, the “war on terror” (pro or anti), global warming.

Even in the Queer community, where AIDS was first identified and where it was the public-policy and activist issue through most of the 1980’s and 1990’s, AIDS awareness has been dwindling. In the 1990’s the right of Queers to serve openly in the U.S. military took over from AIDS as the hot issue among Queer activists, and in this decade the military issue has in turn been superseded by marriage equality and outreach to Queer youth. I had an interesting experience recently running into two friends of mine who were meeting at a coffeehouse to plan an upcoming Queer event and debating to what organization they should donate the door charge. It was a toss-up between two organizations working with Queer youth; not once did they consider donating to an AIDS organization.

AIDS awareness in the Queer community is dwindling in another respect as well. The cloud of shame and fear AIDS – specifically the myth that AIDS is caused by a sexually transmitted virus — dropped over Gay male sexuality has finally started to lift. Fewer and fewer Gay and Bisexual men are living their lives under the gun of virological terrorism; they’ve stopped using condoms when they have sex, they’ve stopped going to take the HIV antibody test every six months, and they’re generally living their sex lives as if AIDS didn’t exist. This isn’t entirely a good thing, mainly because it’s making them somewhat more vulnerable to syphilis and other diseases that really are sexually transmitted, but there’s a difference between maintaining a reasoned awareness of the risks of STD’s and being traumatized by a deliberately hysterical fear campaign into regarding sex as a harbinger of death, which is what the AIDS establishment’s “HIV prevention” campaign tried to do to a generation of Gay men. One sign of this is the increasing popularity of “bareback” Gay porn videos that depict condom-free sex; a marginal (and highly controversial) part of the market when they were reintroduced in the late 1990’s, today they dominate the porn catalogs.

Like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during its own long, slow decline from omnipotence into irrelevance, the AIDS establishment is trying to regain its power by scaring people all over again. HIV “prevention educators” are trying to warn people of the side effects of the anti-HIV drugs — ironically sounding at times like AIDS dissidents as they use some of the same arguments we do: that the benefits of the drugs have been oversold and their risks swept under the proverbial carpet. Acknowledging that the “HIV epidemic” has stalled in the developed world, they’ve seized on various parts of the global South — first sub-Saharan Africa, then southeast Asia, India and now China — alleging, on the basis of highly dubious estimates and wild extrapolations from little hard data, that millions of people in these areas are already “HIV-positive” and only incredibly expensive, highly toxic drugs can save them (sort of, since one other tenet of the AIDS establishment is that HIV exposure is always fatal).

I don’t know how many people who called their pledges into Live 8 while the concerts were being telecast realized that they were essentially donating their money to Big Pharma, but that’s exactly what they were doing. Not content with being the most profitable corporations in the world (at least until the recent spikes in crude oil and gasoline prices put the big oil companies ahead of them), the giant pharmaceutical companies have persuaded millions of people worldwide to give them money, albeit through the fig leaf of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) shilled for by rock stars like Bono, to buy AIDS drugs for countries whose real health problems could be solved at a fraction of the cost. What the countries being ballyhooed as the sites of the next big AIDS epidemics actually need are clean water, sanitation, cheap generic antibiotics for the diseases that really threaten them — especially tuberculosis and malaria — and a health infrastructure to offer their people basic care.

On one level, the AIDS industry at 25 looks like an unstoppable juggernaut, still maintaining its appearance of omnipotence and its ability largely to silence its scientific and activist critics. It’s still making enormous amounts of money for its constituencies — the scientists being paid to research HIV, the organizations receiving government grants to “educate” people to get tested and take the drugs, and above all the drug companies who’ve made a killing (figuratively and literally) on selling the meds. On another level, though, AIDS is dying of sheer disinterest. None of the hysterical predictions that AIDS would be a pandemic of such proportions that it could threaten the very existence of the human race have come anywhere close to coming true — indeed, that part of the AIDS hype has quietly been transferred to avian flu and other newer, scarier pandemic hypes. The AIDS scare is ending the way T. S. Eliot said the world would — not with a bang, but a whimper — and it’s highly unlikely that those of you who are still around in 2031 will see anywhere near the recent hype when “AIDS at 50” rolls around.