Book review.


Neville Hodgkinson, 'AIDS; The Failure of Contemporary Science' Fourth Estate, London UK 1996, 420 pages, ISBN 1-85702-337-4.


Neville Hodgkinson is infamous for having championed, while science correspondent for The Sunday Times, the dissident views of the American biologist Peter Duesberg, that AIDS is not caused by the HIV virus. Indeed, Duesberg argues, AIDS is not an infectious disease at all, but the result of a combination of factors - including promiscuous anal sex and recreational drug abuse - that suppress the immune system. The mainstay of medical treatment, the drug AZT, he calls "poison by prescription": not only is it useless, but it also has side effects detrimental to the health of those who take it.

The medical and scientific establishment thought it seriously unfunny that The Sunday Times should propagate such views. From the Chief Medical Officer downwards they queued up to denounce Hodgkinson for being ignorant, irresponsible and cruel. Bruised but undaunted, Hodgkinson, with the imprimatur of his editor, Andrew Neil, returned to the subject week after week. Everywhere he looked he found what he interpreted as further evidence for Duesberg's arguments, even travelling to Africa, from where he filed a report saying that the catastrophic AIDS epidemic there was a myth. This bizarre folie a deux continued until Andrew Neil left the paper, and Hodgkinson - much to the relief of his embarrassed colleagues - resigned. It has been clear from the very earliest days that AIDS is caused by an infectious agent almost identical in its mode of transmission and pattern of spread to the hepatitis B virus.

It is therefore not easy to imagine in advance what interest there could be in Hodgkinson's apologia, AIDS: the Failure of Contemporary Science, other than a chance to marvel at its author's powers of self-deception. But this is a fascinating book, for, despite Hodgkinson's wrong-headedness, the story he tells is essential to understanding the science and politics of AIDS over the last decade. The dissident AIDS movement arose in reaction to the fatalism inherent in the medical model of the disease, which held that infection by the HIV virus would eventually culminate in AIDS, and there was not much that could be done other than to prescribe AZT. Duesberg was the only scientist to point out the small amount of the HIV virus present in the body which, he wrongly infers, meant it could not cause such a devastating illness as AIDS. None the less, this observation had two crucial corollaries: perhaps other factors such as promiscuous sex or drug abuse might also be necessary for the disease to progress, and there was something people could do about this; secondly, AZT was unlikely to be a very effective treatment. For over a decade the medical establishment sought by every means to belittle or suppress the dissidents' arguments; and yet, on both these counts, particularly following the disappointing results of the later AZT trials, they have been vindicated. Here lies the drama of Hodgkinson's tale, in which a small but passionate group of individuals fought an unequal struggle against the certainties of orthodoxy. Paradoxically, it was precisely because Hodgkinson was so wrong about HIV not being the cause of AIDS that he generated the controversy that would ensure the dissidents' views would reach the widest possible audience. *

By James LeFanu
Source: The Daily Telegraph 22 June 1996