Head of AIDS body slams fringe movement

By André Picard

The Globe and Mail (Canada) 1 May 2000

Those who contend that HIV does not cause AIDS are criminally irresponsible and should be jailed for the menace they pose to public health, one of the world's top researchers says.

Dr. Mark Wainberg, president of the International AIDS Society, said yesterday there is little doubt that the statements of HIV deniers have caused "countless" individuals to contract the deadly immunodeficiency virus.

"People have died as a consequence of the Peter Duesbergs of this world," he said, singling out the guru of the fringe movement. Dr. Duesberg, a biochemist at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that HIV is harmless and that AIDS is caused by drugs, including those used to treat HIV. What angers public-health advocates most is the dissident's view that condoms and safe sex are "irrelevant."

Dr. Wainberg said he believes in free speech, but limits to free speech are justified when it grossly undermines public-health efforts.

"If we could succeed and lock a couple of these guys up, I guarantee you the HIV-denier movement would die pretty darn quickly," he said in a fiery speech at the closing of the annual conference of the Canadian Association for HIV Research, being held in Montreal.

Dr. Wainberg, a renowned researcher who has become an activist in his role as head of the largest international AIDS body, has in the past dismissed HIV deniers as "crazy kooks who should be ignored the same way we should ignore Holocaust deniers." But, lately, he has mounted a public rhetorical crusade.

There are two reasons for the change of heart. Domestically, the McGill University researcher has been angered by publication of The Virus Within, a book by journalist Nicholas Regush that argues AIDS is caused by herpes virus 6, not by HIV.

Internationally, Dr. Wainberg is troubled by the fact that the President of South Africa, one of the countries hit hardest by HIV-AIDS, has publicly endorsed the views of Dr. Duesberg.

President Thabo Mbeki has lashed out at those refusing to debate the cause of AIDS for waging a "campaign of intellectual intimidation and terrorism" and has likened their intransigence to the "racist apartheid tyranny we opposed."

Dr. Wainberg disagrees, saying that to even debate the question "Does HIV cause AIDS?" leads to irresponsible sexual behaviour and prompts those undergoing treatment to abandon their medications.

He told delegates that, in other matters of public health, such as smoking, the debate would not be tolerated.


AIDS dissonance and dissidents

You can't imprison HIV-deniers and you can't ignore AIDS chaos

Almost 20 years after the disease first burst upon human consciousness, AIDS still carries a problematic status unlike that of any other modern illness.

At the root of the issue is an intrinsic heterogeneity. People who are infected with HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, can die in very different ways. Some succumb to pneumonia. Others die of a heretofore rare skin cancer. Still others have their brain eaten away by funguses. In all, 26 varying conditions are grouped together to constitute AIDS.

In some places -- Africa comes to mind -- the disease seems to be efficiently spread by heterosexual sexual practices. In other places -- think Canada -- it is largely restricted to gays and to drug users who share needles. Some people engage in the riskiest of behaviour over and over and don't come down with the disease.

These contradictions lead to a politics of AIDS that often seems distinctly unmedical. Over the weekend, Montreal AIDS researcher Mark Wainberg, president of the International AIDS Society, slammed the so-called AIDS dissidents who argue that it isn't HIV, but something else, that is causing the disease. He suggested that the dissidents' arguments are causing people to ignore sensible AIDS-prevention strategies, and that in the interest of public health one should send HIV-deniers to jail.

While one can sympathize with Dr. Wainberg's frustrations, particularly as HIV-deniers have been seized upon by South African President Thabo Mbeki to justify the failure to provide AIDS treatments and education protocols in his country, one cannot simply imprison the AIDS unorthodox.

It's a question not merely of a democratic defence of free speech but of intellectual honesty. While the vast majority of evidence says that HIV causes AIDS, AIDS has so many faces that you understand why people of good faith are dissatisfied with its being classified as a single disease.

In this, they are not evildoers, but Ockhamists -- modern followers of William of Ockham, who enunciated one of the central laws of modern scientific thought. When faced with competing explanations, choose the one that explains things with the least number of complications.

The HIV-deniers force us to confront the fact that the present theory is so complex that it often seems simpler to argue that many disparate things have been mistakenly lumped together. The deniers tell us: To be truly believed, make your explanations simpler.

That said, it is with great horror that one views the attempts to ignore the demonic effects of AIDS in places such as Africa. When the U.S. National Security Council recently announced that AIDS is a threat to American national security, this was immediately pooh-poohed by U.S. Senate Leader Trent Lott as political posturing to raise more money to satisfy an American AIDS lobby.

Mr. Lott clearly isn't seeing the politics of AIDS-related social chaos. Life expectancy in Southern Africa, which rose from 44 years in the 1950s to 59 in the 1990s, is soon expected to again be in the mid-40s, largely because of AIDS. Orphaned children abound; hospitals are overwhelmed; in some places death rates exceed birth rates.

No democratic institutions -- indeed no stable institutions -- are going to survive in this sort of plague zone. Not just U.S. national security, but world security, will be in peril, if AIDS-infected countries become places where people will do anything to survive. If history teaches anything, it is that chaos is a communicable disease.

Therefore, even though we don't simply understand how AIDS works, the world ignores the consequences of its ravages at the world's peril.