Mother Defies Conventional Wisdom About AIDS 23 Aug. 2001

Christine Maggiore is HIV positive, and experts say there's at least a one-in-four chance that her son and unborn daughter are, too. But she doesn't believe HIV can harm them.

Maggiore's controversial book, What if Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? questions the most basic medical and scientific findings about the disease.

"The idea that HIV causes AIDS is an idea that has not been proven to be correct or true," she says. "There are many valid, vital reasons to go back and rethink what we've been told."

Activists and many AIDS experts have attacked her for her dissident views, but Maggiore's influence is growing, and her voice has been heard across the country and around the world.

American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmfAR) co-founder Dr. Mathilde Krim fears Maggiore is doing incalculable harm in the fight against AIDS.

"The problem here is that she's spreading the delusion to others without any doubt that she may be wrong," Krim says. "This is terrible. This is what makes me angry."

Path to Dissidence

In 1992, two years after her long-term relationship ended, Maggiore tested positive for HIV in a routine medical exam. She soon learned that her ex-boyfriend had also tested HIV positive. Believing she was terminally ill, she devoted herself to warning others about the dangers of AIDS.

"I encouraged people to take tests. I called them accurate and specific," she says. "I told people that everything added up in the world of AIDS science, and I believed that with my heart."

But a year after she was diagnosed, another HIV test came back indeterminate and a subsequent test was negative.

Frustrated and angry, Maggiore desperately searched for answers. The more she read, the more questions she had. She was shocked to learn that HIV tests measure antibodies, not the virus itself, and that scientists still have questions about the exact process by which HIV causes AIDS.

She discovered the writings of Dr. Peter Duesberg, a controversial virologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been saying for years that HIV could not cause AIDS.

"I realized that what I had been taught and what I was teaching other people did not add up," she says. "Many times it was simply wrong."

She became convinced AIDS was not caused by HIV, but by other known immune-suppressing risk factors such as recreational drug use, toxic AIDS treatments, even poverty and malnutrition.

"The diseases we call AIDS can range from chronic yeast infections to certain forms of cancer to certain kinds of pneumonias," she says. "These happen to people who don't test HIV positive."

Mainstream scientists, however, say the evidence is irrefutable. HIV can be found in the blood of almost 100 percent of those diagnosed with epidemic AIDS, and virtually no one without HIV will develop AIDS.

"The evidence that HIV causes AIDS is as good as the evidence that exists that polio is caused by a polio virus and measles by a measles virus," says Krim.

Controversial Decisions

Maggiore knows that without treatment, she has a 95 percent chance of dying from AIDS within the next six years.

But not only has she refused to take anti-HIV drugs she engaged in unprotected sex with her husband, documentary filmmaker Robin Scovill, who knew Maggiore was HIV positive when they became involved.

Shortly after the two became intimate, Maggiore discovered she was pregnant. "First we laughed and then we cried and then we laughed," she remembers. Her son Charlie is now 3 years old, and Maggiore is now pregnant with their second child.

Doctors warn that there is a 25 percent chance her children will also be infected with the virus, because in both pregnancies, she refused to take anti-HIV drugs like AZT.

She argues that the powerful drugs would do more harm than help. "AZT is a drug that disrupts, destroys forming DNA chains in the body, that's the central molecule of life," she says. "I did not want to expose my growing child to toxins during pregnancy."

Like his father, Charlie has never been tested for HIV. Maggiore has chosen not to test her son because she doesn't want to subject him to the stigma of HIV. "I don't need to risk introducing into his life a label that will wrongly describe him as ill when he's not."

She's also made the radical decision to breastfeed Charlie, even though experts say HIV can be transmitted through breast milk.

Private Convictions Gone Public

Her fervent convictions put her in the spotlight.

She met with San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, who was sympathetic to her beliefs. And last summer, Maggiore stepped onto the world stage at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. There she met with President Thabo Mbeki, who reportedly became intrigued by the dissidents' views while surfing the Internet.

Protests erupted when Mbeki stunned the world by questioning whether HIV was indeed the cause of the AIDS epidemic devastating his country. The American Foundation for AIDS Research shot back with a full-page ad in The New York Times saying, "HIV is caused by AIDS, to argue otherwise costs lives."

Krim worries that the publicity she has garnered is a step in the wrong direction in the fight against AIDS.

"What she says she has learned," Krim says, " drives people to the conclusion that they can throw away their condoms and stop taking medication."

Convinced She's Beating the Odds

But Maggiore says she's simply trying to encourage people to question conventional ideas about the disease.

"All I'm asking is for people to think about these issues," she says. "I'm providing information that people can use to make informed choices about their life and their health."

Experts say that the incubation period between HIV infection and full blown AIDS is 10 years. Krim says that she is simply a "slow progressor."

But Maggiore remains convinced she's beaten the odds. She is now five months pregnant with her second child.