Is World AIDS Day a Sorry Sham?

By Nicholas Regush 1 December 1999

This is a sad day. I’m writing this on World AIDS Day, and I think it’s very sad that AIDS science has galloped out of control.

It’s also sad that this day is used to advance scientific self-interest that will probably help no one except a long queue of mediocre scientists with a high-cost load of bad theory and bad research. And this sad day will also give a long line of unquestioning science reporters another opportunity to suggest to the world that they really care about people who die from AIDS.

Am I being extremely harsh? Yes, I am. It’s every bit deserved.

Same Old Stories, Every Year

Every year on World AIDS Day, all the bad news comes pouring out of the World Health Organization: More AIDS cases; more HIV infections. News headlines scream that the world is getting pulverized by the virus from hell. More money is needed for HIV research. More attention should be given to AIDS. And so on. And naturally many “leading” AIDS researchers — whatever that means — are quoted in the papers or appearing on camera to suggest that progress is being made and hope is just around the corner.

But I contend that World AIDS Day is nothing short of a propaganda tool for scientists to reinforce an established model for how AIDS develops — an established model that is short on scientific evidence, that often rings of peculiar speculation, if not outright fantasy.

If the people involved in AIDS science really cared about those dying of a still mysterious set of immune-related conditions, they would set aside at least one day a year — let’s call it World AIDS Day — to discuss, in conferences around the world, the state of the prevailing science and all theories questioning that very science. (Isn’t this what science is supposed to be — a questioning enterprise?)

Issues Really Worth Debating

For example, this issue could be put on the table for worldwide discussion: Is there scientific evidence that HIV can kill cells in the human body? Imagine open and extensive scrutiny of all the claims about this so-called virus’ ability to kill cells that are key components of the immune system. We could get a better view of what passes off for science and what is truly speculative, based on theory and inference.

Here’s another topic: Is HIV a real virus, or are the gene sequences attributed to HIV really genetic products of cell damage? And while scientists debate that issue, they might also turn to the question of what the so-called HIV antibody test is really picking up: Is it picking up antibodies to a virus, or to byproducts of cell damaged from, perhaps, drugs, other infections, and other toxic insults?

As for Africa, which is usually singled out by the World Health Organization on World AIDS Day, debate could focus on what passes for a diagnosis of AIDS, or what basis is used to proclaim someone HIV-positive. There is a lot of shoddy data here requiring careful scrutiny and re-evaluation.

Of course, the politics here, and elsewhere in the AIDS domain, dominate and obfuscate. A discussion of the African AIDS plight would probably have to run into at least a second or third day (or maybe a month) before a clearer picture of AIDS emerges from the muck. And a discussion of HIV in Africa would inevitably lead to the need to understand how a wide array of intolerable human conditions produces disease, a fact overwhelmed by such a powerful focus on HIV.

Why This Won’t Happen

I know none of this debate stuff is going to happen. If it did, it would reveal a picture of AIDS quite different from the sorry, speculative one we have now. It would reveal a science bordering on shortcuts and side cuts. It would raise serious questions about whether the cause of AIDS is this deadly bullet labeled HIV.

I know that I’m in the cross hairs myself when I write of such things. I know that I will get a load of e-mail calling me every nasty name imaginable — from nonscientists as well as scientists. Some will challenge my reputation; others, including science writers, will write to friends at ABCNEWS and suggest that they try to get me fired; still others, mostly scientists, will go so far as to call me a ”murderer.” Well, so be it. Fire away. Give me your best shots — preferably scientific ones. And if any of the AIDS science big shots out there want to challenge my views in a well-organized and well-publicized debate, I’d love to do it — I’ll eat them alive. But I’m sure none of them have the guts to take me on; it would reveal too clearly just how sad World AIDS Day really is.

Nicholas Regush produces medical features for ABCNEWS. In his weekly column, published Wednesdays, he looks at medical trouble spots, heralds innovative achievements and analyzes health trends that may greatly influence our lives. His latest book is The Breaking Point: Understanding Your Potential for Violence.