HIV DENIERS SHOULD BE JAILED
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
"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
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
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
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.