By Colleen Dougher

Citylink Dec. '00

It doesn’t according to followers of a controversial movement who wonder how we can win the war against AIDS when the disease’s true cause remains in question.

Kai Thorup doesn’t believe HIV causes AIDS. Nor does the 28-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident believe AIDS is an infectious disease, or that the drugs doctors prescribe to keep it at bay do anything more than make you very sick.

As far as he’s concerned, HIV is a harmless retrovirus with a bad rep, and the belief that it causes AIDS, a myth.

Preposterous as that may sound, it’s a theory small groups around the United States and beyond are supporting. Some call themselves “dissidents,” while their mainstream opponents call them “AIDS denialists.”

They scour the Internet for dissident news, read every AIDS-related article journalist Celia Farber ever wrote and devour books like Peter Duesberg’s Inventing the AIDS Virus. Some dedicate a good portion of their lives to spreading their message. And those dissidents who are HIV-positive don’t take AIDS drugs because they don’t hold HIV responsible for AIDS.

Instead, they blame AIDS on other things they say are well-known immune suppressors: like long-term use of recreational drugs; multiple infections and antibiotics; malnutrition; impoverished living conditions; lack of sleep; AIDS drugs; and the stress of being told you have a virus that always progresses to AIDS, a disease for which there is no cure.

To get their message out, one California group placed a series of full-page ads in Bay Area newspapers questioning the cause of AIDS, the accuracy of HIV tests and the safety and effectiveness of treatment. The fourth ad announced a public forum where these issues would be discussed. Other groups have tried to lure established AIDS experts into public debates.

Their views have angered public health officials and members of AIDS organizations who believe the dissidents’ theories are dangerous. They present a number of studies linking HIV to AIDS, and express concern that the people who subscribe to dissident theories won’t get tested or that those who have been tested, won’t pursue treatment, especially given that the treatment consists of complicated regimens of AIDS drugs, whose long-term side effects are unknown.

The dissidents, many of whom were diagnosed five to 15 years ago and remain healthy despite their refusal to take AIDS drugs, express concerns, too. They worry about the dangers these drugs pose to everyone who takes them, especially pregnant women and their babies. They worry that people will take the drugs without hearing all the information that should be made available to them and without hearing their side of the story.

Their theories are a radical departure from everything most of us have ever heard about HIV and AIDS. But presented in the context of researchers who steal viruses and pawn them off as their own discoveries, an “AIDS establishment” with an ego and agenda to promote, a media that thrives on sensationalism and greedy pharmaceutical companies — some the size of small countries — who want to keep their products on the market, these theories can be a surprisingly easy pill to swallow.

The fact that they’re preaching to a world that is already fairly disgusted with the entire medical establishment and looking for hope in places where little has been offered can’t hurt, either.

Switching camps

It’s been five years since Thorup joined the ranks of the nonbelievers. On a recent afternoon, he sits at a picnic table outside Nova Southeastern University’s main campus in Davie and explains what led him to this conclusion. It begins with a quiet night at home with the remote control and ends with him leaving college to devote more time to telling people the truth, as he sees it, about AIDS.

Initially, Thorup, who worked in film before majoring in liberal arts at Nova, believed what most everyone else believes — that HIV causes AIDS. Then one night, while channel-surfing, he came across a documentary that implied otherwise.

“This was just an interesting documentary because everything I’d ever heard about AIDS was being challenged,” Thorup says. “And what made it interesting were the people saying this. It was all scientists, Nobel Prize winners, the guy who first discovered retroviruses, which is what HIV is. And I was just floored.”

He wanted to tell his friends about it, he says, but didn’t know what the program was called. “So, for six months, I’m running around telling everybody what I’d heard, and everybody thinks I’m crazy,” he says. “And finally, somebody brought me an article and said, ‘Here’s that AIDS stuff you’ve been talking about.’ ”

Thorup spent the next year and a half reading everything he could get his hands on, including the book that begins many a dissident’s journey: Inventing the AIDS Virus, in which Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, recounts, among other things, the discovery of HIV.

The condensed version of Duesberg’s account of the “discovery” goes like this: Luc Montagnier, working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1983, cultured cells from a gay patient with swollen lymph nodes but no AIDS. Within weeks, he had discovered a retrovirus, Lymphadenopathy-Associated Virus (LAV), which he hoped might be accepted as the cause of AIDS, and enlisted the help of scientist Robert Gallo to promote his new discovery.

Gallo, who was under great pressure from the Centers for Disease Control to find the cause of AIDS, requested a sample of the retrovirus, which Montagnier sent him. By the spring of 1984, Gallo had prepared four papers reporting his discovery of a very similar retrovirus and its isolation from AIDS patients. Then, at a press conference sponsored by Health and Human Services, it was announced to the world, before Gallo’s papers were published and peer-reviewed, that HIV is the probable cause of AIDS.

The next day, The New York Times was calling it “The AIDS Virus,” and Gallo, who was receiving credit for discovering it, had already filed for the U.S. patent for the HIV-antibody test.

But in 1985, when Gallo and Montagnier published genetic sequences of their viruses, researchers noted that they were so similar that they probably came from the same patient. When challenged, Gallo failed to produce any of those other virus isolates he claimed to have, and later blamed his lack of other viruses on lab accidents that destroyed dozens of isolates.

After a three-year international legal battle over who discovered the virus, a deal was worked out. In March 1987, at a meeting between President Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, the two governments agreed to share credit for the discovery of the virus and to rename it HIV.

By the end of 1994, Duesberg writes in his book, the director of the National Institutes of Health had agreed to relocate to France the American royalties for the Gallo-NIH patent of the HIV-antibody test. And the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House of Representatives had released a 267-page report providing overwhelming evidence that Gallo and the NIH had patented Montagnier’s virus.

But Duesberg and other dissidents point out that with all the hoopla over who discovered — or didn’t discover — the virus, and leaders of the world negotiating credit for the find, bigger issues were falling through the cracks. Like, had anyone actually proven that HIV causes AIDS? And if so, who? And if not HIV, then what is causing AIDS?

Duesberg, Thorup says, presents some compelling arguments for other causes of AIDS, ranging from the use of recreational drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana and poppers (amyl nitrate) to multiple infections being treated with multiple antibiotics and prescription drugs, including those prescribed to AIDS patients.

First it was AZT, which dissidents will tell you was approved by the FDA on the basis of a flawed study that was cut short. The drug, toxic enough to carry a skull and crossbones on its label, was initially approved for use in only the sickest of patients. But in 1989, journalist Celia Farber reported in Spin magazine that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recommended that anyone with HIV antibodies and less than 500 T4 cells start taking it.

The media was quick to report this recommendation, which they said was based on the results of a two-year study. But when Farber called to ask for a copy of the study, she was told it was still being written.

Four years later, Farber wrote about the 1993 Concorde study (conducted by British Medical Research Council and its French equivalent), which examined 1,749 HIV-positive but healthy people at 38 health centers in the U.K., Ireland and France. This three-year study, she and others reported, concluded that AZT neither prolonged life nor staved off symptoms of AIDS in people who were HIV-positive, but still healthy.

So, for years, many people who were feeling fine began taking AZT, and many suffered ugly side effects. Some assumed it was AIDS catching up to them. Others got off the drug and began to feel better.

Then came protease inhibitors and drug cocktails, and with them, new sets of problems. After five years on highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART), some patients are getting diabetes, cancer, and liver and pancreas problems.

After years of saying that interrupting treatment regimens could be dangerous, experts now talk of a new strategy that would interrupt treatments and give the immune system a chance to fight the virus. Despite what looks like a reduction in viral loads, AIDS experts say, the virus continues to multiply in hidden reserves within the body, mysteriously escaping the drugs designed to battle it.

The dissidents have trouble believing the mystery aspect of HIV, and say the real mystery is why no one is looking at other possible causes of AIDS, including the theories Duesberg has been promoting for years.

The trouble, Thorup says, is that no one was listening because everyone was already convinced that HIV was the culprit. After all, he says, there were at least 100,000 studies based on this assumption and billions of dollars being made by pharmaceutical companies.

Thorup believes Duesberg. And his extensive research and numerous phone calls to scientists and dissident activists led him to a world of others who also believed.

Doubting in South Florida

Thorup launched a chapter of HEAL three years ago, which he later renamed Students Reappraising AIDS (SRA), at Nova University and began inviting dissidents to speak at the school. Over three years, HEAL brought to the university people like Christine Maggiore, the HIV-positive mother who later founded Alive & Well; David Rasnick, an expert on protease inhibitors; Celia Farber, whose columns in Spin were twice the basis of university courses in critical science reporting; and, of course, Duesberg.

But the biggest event, and by far the most controversial, was last year’s lecture by Kary Mullis.

Mullis, an eccentric biochemist with a passion for surfing, is credited with inventing polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a method that makes it easier to detect hereditary cancers, solve crimes and find HIV by selectively multiplying and mass-producing DNA segments. The technology for this method, which Cetus Corp. later sold for more than $300 million, earned Mullis a paltry $10,000 and a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993.

But Thorup’s group hadn’t invited Mullis to Nova to discuss the wonders of PCR. As it turns out, the guy who made it easier to detect HIV doesn’t believe the virus causes AIDS. Not that he agrees with Duesberg about what does cause it, he writes in the foreword to Duesberg’s book, but he does agree with him about what doesn’t.

In 1988, while working as a consultant at Specialty Labs in Santa Monica, Mullis was working on a paper, and when he wrote the statement “HIV is the probable cause of AIDS,” he realized he didn’t know the scientific reference for the statement. So, he asked a virologist at the next desk for the reference, but was told he didn’t need one.

Dumbfounded that there wouldn’t be a scientific reference for this, he began searching for the published paper, or papers, indicating that HIV was the probable cause of AIDS. He began with the computer, but turned up nothing. Because attending meetings and conferences was part of his job, he started asking AIDS scholars for the reference. But two years and nearly 15 meetings later, he still had no answer.

Then, he got the chance to ask none other than Dr. Luc Montagnier when he lectured in San Diego. But the response Mullis described is not what one might expect of the researcher who has been called the co-discoverer of the HIV-AIDS link.

“With a look of condescending puzzlement, Montagnier said, ‘Why don’t you quote the report from the Centers for Disease Control?’ I replied, ‘It doesn’t really address the issue of whether or not HIV is the probable cause of AIDS, does it?’ ” Mullis writes.

He admitted that it didn’t, and suggested Mullis quote the work on Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. Mullis told him that he had read that, too, but that what happened to those monkeys didn’t remind him of AIDS. Besides, Mullis pointed out, that paper had been published just a few months earlier and he was looking for the original paper showing that HIV causes AIDS. At this, Montagnier quickly walked away to greet an acquaintance across the room.

A few years later, while driving from Mendocino to San Diego, a sleepy Mullis turned on the radio and heard an interview with Duesberg. A pioneer in retrovirus research, Duesberg was the first scientist to isolate a cancer gene and had written several articles for scientific journals challenging the HIV/AIDS hypothesis. Mullis had heard of him, but had never read his papers. “But I listened, now wide awake,” he wrote, “while he explained exactly why I was having so much trouble finding the references linking HIV to AIDS. There weren’t any. No one had ever proved that HIV causes AIDS.”

Mullis, like many others, was baffled. Sometime after Mullis won his Nobel Prize, ABC’s Nightline wanted to do a documentary on him but Mullis suggested they instead focus on the debate about whether HIV causes AIDS. In the end, they did both. But as Mullis later told Farber in an interview for Spin, he wished they had taken it a step further.

“What they should have done,” he told Farber, “is talk to Fauci [chairman of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] and Gallo and show that they’re assholes, which I could do in 10 minutes. … I would be willing to chase the little bastard from his car to his office and say, ‘This is Kary Mullis trying to ask you a goddamn simple question’ and let the cameras follow. If people think I’m a crazy person, that’s OK. But here’s a Nobel Prize winner trying to ask a simple question from those who spent $22 billion and killed 100,000 people.’ ”

Eleven years after launching his search for the scientific reference, Mullis still hadn’t found it.

Prior to Mullis’ lecture, no one paid much attention to HEAL’s Nova chapter. Membership had swelled to 180, including nine faculty advisers, and the group was bringing in a Nobel laureate, Mullis, who was going to attack the theory that HIV causes AIDS.

Mullis’ appearance was turning into a big deal. F. Lee Bailey was scheduled to introduce him. CNN was coming. And increased discussion about the speaker and his topic, Thorup says, didn’t sit well with some Nova administrators. There were threats to pull funding, he says, and the student president even called Mullis at home to say that he could only talk about his discovery of PCR and not AIDS.

Nova officials, interviewed by Broward-Palm Beach New Times just before the lecture, dismissed accusations of censorship, saying there may have been a suggestion that a speaker with a mainstream perspective be brought in to balance the presentation. They also said there was discussion as to whether the school should fork over $8,000 to bring in a Nobel laureate to talk about something unrelated to his Nobel Prize. But they opted in favor of academic freedom.

The show went on, and the 500-seat auditorium was packed, with some people dragging in their own chairs and many of them hearing for the first time this theory about HIV not causing AIDS.

The bigger picture

The lecture was a success. But according to Thorup, Students Reappraising AIDS met with resistance after that. There were always people at the university’s Wellness Center who thought Thorup was the Antichrist, he says, but until last year, they didn’t interfere.

Jennifer Griffin, who joined SRA shortly before the group stopped meeting at Nova, says she was banned from participating in an AIDS Quilt for Hope organized by the Wellness Center, because her quilt panel worked in the skull and crossbones that appears on AZT labels to warn of the dangers the drug poses to children. But, Griffin says, her message was deemed inappropriate. “I thought it should be out there,” she says. “Why not? If the drugs we’re giving children are harmful, then that needs to be shown.”

The woman in charge of student clubs and activities at Nova said it isn’t her place to talk about these kinds of issues. She suggested we speak with Bonnie Hoffman at the Wellness Center. But calls to the Wellness Center were not returned.

Today, Students Reappraising AIDS, as well as Thorup’s college education, is on hiatus as Griffin and Thorup focus on End AIDS 2000, the organization they formed with Farber to “shed light on subjects that have become politically darkened.” The group will hold a series of Rock the Boat concerts (including one in Miami next April) that offer a voice to alternative viewpoints about AIDS and other issues.

Other dissidents are taking their messages to a bigger audience, as well.

Earlier this year, several doctors, researchers and public health experts, met to discuss strategies to combat HIV and AIDS in South Africa. Nearly half of the panel’s members, organized by South African president Thabo Mbeki, questioned HIV as the cause of AIDS. Duesberg and Rasnick were among them.

Dissidents have long argued that the reported cases of AIDS in Africa aren’t even based on HIV testing but on symptoms of diseases that have existed there for some time. Only now they have a new name: AIDS.

Mbeki must have considered this possibility. “It seemed to me,” he said at a press conference, “that we could not blame everything on a single virus. It seemed to me also that every living African, whether in good or ill health, is prey to many enemies of health that would interact one upon the other in many ways within one human body.”

Maggiore also was in South Africa in July, distributing literature from her booth at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban. The following month, a story about her appeared in Newsweek. She has since taped an interview with 20/20, which is scheduled to air on Friday — World AIDS Day — and has been invited to appear on Good Morning America, 60 Minutes and CNN.

Recently, Maggiore has received much support from the rock band the Foo Fighters. Thorup met the band last year at Zeta’s Halloweenie Roast and gave them a copy of Maggiore’s book, What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? As it turned out, bassist Nate Mendel had already read it and said he supported Maggiore’s efforts. In February, the band held a benefit for Alive & Well at The Palace in Hollywood, Calif.

The Foo Fighters also are involved with Rock the Boat, as is actor Esai Morales (La Bamba, The Burning Season), guitarist Richard Lloyd, from the 1970s punk band Television, and DJ/producer/re-mixer Noel W. Sanger.

Sanger, who recently moved from Pompano Beach to Orlando, hasn’t believed HIV was the cause of AIDS since reading Farber’s interview with Duesberg in 1993. Earlier this year, he met Thorup online and agreed to help him spread the dissidents’ message. So far, he’s distributed 20 copies of Maggiore’s book, including one to a former music partner’s friend who was recently diagnosed HIV-positive.

Meanwhile, hundreds of biochemists, biologists, doctors, professors, writers and activists have joined The Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV-AIDS Hypothesis. Together, they’re fighting for a reexamination of the data that led to the conclusion that AIDS is caused by HIV.

Much to the dismay of those who believe HIV causes AIDS, this small army of dedicated nonbelievers is growing. And they’re pretty darned tight.

They see their cohesiveness as their only hope of keeping their organizations — and their message — afloat in a world where so many other AIDS organizations, Web sites, conferences, activist groups and even clinical trials are funded by pharmaceutical companies.

Criticizing the critics

Not that their views are winning them any popularity contests.

After publicly questioning whether HIV causes AIDS, Duesberg suffered funding cuts and had difficulty getting his papers published. Some have called him a murderer. South African president Mbeki has been harshly criticized for inviting scientists with the audacity to question the cause of AIDS to the International AIDS Conference.

After the Foo Fighters held a benefit for Maggiore in February, Mother Jones reported that HIV experts were “alarmed by the possible impact of the Foo Fighters’ embrace of Maggiore’s theories on their potentially gullible young fans.”

Maggiore, too, has heard her share of criticism.

Some have called her a conspiracy theorist. Others put her in the same category as Holocaust deniers. Newsweek described her as “a different kind of AIDS activist — one who tells people to forget safe sex and stop taking their lifesaving AIDS drugs.”

Maggiore says she has never advised people to toss out their condoms or flush their drugs. She wrote the author of the Newsweek article to inquire about his sources for this information. Despite the tone of the article, which describes a scene where Maggiore and her “galvanized followers” are threatened with bullets, Maggiore concedes that her life was never directly threatened. There was a sign outside the AIDS conference that said “one dissident, one bullet.” But there were 12,000 people at that conference, she says, and much attention being paid to Mbeki.

“I was in a booth every single day, where anyone who wanted to could come up and say, well, anything they wanted,” Maggiore says from her home in California. “And I had nothing but polite conversations with people from all over the world, including health ministers, HIV counselors, people directly affected by this, doctors. I even had nice conversations with pharmaceutical reps.

“If you gave this story its true sensationalistic stint,” she says, “it would be ‘Isn’t it amazing that one woman, her partner, her son and her mother-in-law show up at an AIDS conference where it’s supposed to be a single-minded march toward vaccines and medication, and come here with alternative information and are warmly embraced.”

She says there are plenty of misconceptions about Alive & Well. The group’s board, she explains, consists almost entirely of HIV-positive people.

“And then, we came together after having found that there were like-minded souls out there. We came together so that others can at least be offered the options that we kind of carved out for ourselves,” Maggiore says, “and we don’t advocate anything except that people become informed and we kind of support their journey. But we don’t hand them a road map and tell them where to go.”

Maggiore didn’t have a road map, either. Her own road to disbelief started with confusion and eventually led to Duesberg’s book, and then to a small world of information she never even knew existed.

When she tested HIV-positive in 1992, she says her life came to a grinding halt. She lost interest in her business, dropped out of a university program, bought a wedding ring to ward off potential suitors and started joining support groups, where she eventually got drafted into activism and began speaking about the dangers of HIV and AIDS.

Eventually, she met a doctor who suggested she retest. This time, the result was inconclusive. The next test was negative and the one after that, positive.

Maggiore’s search for the cause of these discrepancies, she says, is what led her to a body of scientific, medical and epidemiological data that defied all she’d ever been taught about AIDS and all that she’d been teaching to others. The more she read, the more convinced she became that researchers had jumped on a bandwagon that was headed in the wrong direction. When she learned that these theories were unwelcome at the AIDS groups she belonged to, she started her own organization.

Today, Maggiore has a happy relationship and a healthy, 2-year-old son. Eight years after her initial diagnosis, she says, she lives without drugs or fear of AIDS. And contrary to the way some have portrayed her, she’s not advocating unsafe sex or demanding people stop taking their drugs.

What her group does offer, she says, is access to information and support, which includes medical referrals to people who will treat the medical problems rather than just keep throwing drugs at the virus.

“There are some people who test positive,” she points out, “who are truly immune-suppressed and we’re working on an ever-expanding nationwide list of medical referrals who pledge to regard the patient as a person rather than an HIV-positive [person]. We find that whenever people are regarded as HIV-positive, they are no longer seen as unique individuals, and often times whatever health challenges they’re facing are written off to HIV when, in fact, every single AIDS illness has a cause and a treatment, well-known and acknowledged by everyone, that’s totally unrelated to HIV.”

Alive & Well also provides legal defense to mothers who are forced into giving their HIV-positive children drugs.

In her book, Maggiore relates the story of Valerie Emerson of Bangor, Maine.

Emerson didn’t do well on AZT, and her 3-year-old daughter suffered a horrible death while on the drug. Then, her son Nikolas went on AIDS drugs and endured 10 weeks of intense abdominal pain, night sweats, diarrhea, insomnia, swollen knees and anemia so severe that he needed blood transfusions. When Emerson took Nikolas off the drugs, his health improved.

When a doctor later suggested Nikolas take part in an aggressive drug therapy trial, Emerson refused, and the doctor reported her to the Department of Health and Human Services, who tried to place the boy in state custody. Emerson faced charges of neglect. After a District Court found in her favor, an appeal was brought before the Supreme Court, which upheld Emerson’s right to make decisions about her son’s health care.

Maggiore recently went to New York to set up a legal defense team for a family whose 18-month-old baby was taken by seven police officers at 10:30 at night after the mother asked for a second opinion about giving the baby AIDS medications. The baby tested positive, negative and inconclusive, and wasn’t sick. Maggiore says the parents tried to give their baby the drugs but the kid got so sick it was horrifying. Within days of telling doctors they wanted a second opinion, the child was taken away, put into a foster home and given AIDS drugs. The parents were told they could visit him once a week.

“I’m happy to say that because of our efforts and the grace of good things in the universe,” Maggiore says, “that child was returned to his family within 24 hours of the custody hearing.”

Despite her efforts, or perhaps because of them, some continue to lump Maggiore in with Holocaust deniers. But she maintains there are things far more horrifying than access to an alternative point of view.

“How much more horrifying and how much more Holocaust-like do we need to be with regard to parents having children taken in the middle of the night by police officers and being put on experimental drugs at state mandate?” she asks. “I mean if anything evokes the Holocaust, it would be that, not a group of people advocating free access to information, unbiased opportunities to evaluate all sides of the matter, and open discussions and public debate.”

Sixteen years later

It’s been 16 years since HIV was first reported to be the cause of AIDS. Since that time, billions of dollars have been spent on research that’s produced tons of studies. To many, questioning HIV as the cause of AIDS is unthinkable.

Even the researcher credited with discovering the link between HIV and AIDS was sharply criticized when he suggested there were shortcomings in the theory that HIV alone causes AIDS. According to The Washington Post, Luc Montagnier said in 1990 — three years after AZT was introduced — that he was no longer convinced that HIV was the sole cause of AIDS and suggested that a bacterialike organism known as microplasma might be what turned an otherwise benign HIV infection into a disease.

According to the article, Montagnier said he found it quite feasible that the microbe could be the additional factor that turns HIV from a “peaceful” virus into a killer. “This is not to say that HIV is not the primary agent,” he said. “But there are serious shortcomings in the idea that it causes all the disease.”

The Washington Post wrote that Montagnier was criticized by AIDS experts who pointed out that his theory challenged a large body of research accumulated since the virus was discovered seven years earlier.

Today, of course, there’s a much larger body of research available — enough to completely overwhelm the average person searching for answers. Trying to decipher it all is confusing.

The experts all point to the link between HIV and AIDS, while dissidents say that link is a result of the definition of AIDS, which they say is HIV in the presence of any one of 29 known opportunistic diseases, ranging from invasive cervical cancer to pulmonary tuberculosis.

“Without HIV,” Thorup says, “they’re just known diseases. So, if you have tuberculosis plus HIV you have AIDS. If you have tuberculosis without HIV, you have tuberculosis. One’s curable. One’s not. There’s no difference in symptoms.”

As the list of diseases associated with HIV grew, Thorup says, so did the number of AIDS cases.

AIDS experts maintain the link between HIV and AIDS is unquestionable, and while none of these 29 diseases actually caused these people to have AIDS, it’s HIV that destroyed their T-cells and broke down their immune system to the point where these opportunistic diseases could enter the body.

But the dissidents ask why, if there’s enough virus in the body to do this much damage, do they need to use polymerase chain reaction, the most powerful magnification tool known to man, to find it? And why are antibodies viewed as disease indicators rather than indicators of immunity? And why do we know of so many HIV-positive people whose partners never tested HIV-positive? And why can no one explain exactly how HIV destroys the immune system? And what about those 4,621 AIDS cases without HIV that were alluded to in 1993?

They also question why statistics on AIDS cases are always cumulative, arranged in such a manner that it would appear that cases are on the rise, even if they are not.

There’s nothing about the HIV/AIDS theory that makes sense to the dissidents. They want answers, and they’re asking for them, in a very public manner, from Foo Fighters concerts to AIDS conferences, and until last year, at Nova University.

Stephen Fallon is the former director of education at the Fort Lauderdale AIDS agency CenterOne, and the current president of Skills4 Inc., a Fort Lauderdale-based health care consulting firm. A few years ago, he attended a HEAL presentation.

They brought in a couple of people from the biology and chemistry departments, he says, to explain why the link between HIV and AIDS was in doubt. And they showed a video of Kary Mullis. Fallon says he asked some pointed questions, like why they were using data from 1990 to support their argument, when there was more current information available. He wanted to know, he says, why they weren’t addressing viral load tests, which came online in 1996.

Fallon admits that it’s necessary to use polymerase chain reaction to amplify a sample of the virus enough to confirm its presence, but says that doesn’t render a viral load test meaningless.

“HIV reproduces at such a fanatic rate that about 99 percent of the babies it makes of itself, what we call virions, are nonviable,” Fallon says. “They can’t threaten cells or reproduce. They’re broken. For these reasons, HEAL says a viral load test is meaningless.”

But Fallon argues that it doesn’t matter that they had to amplify the sample to see it. That doesn’t change the correlation, he says, between HIV and mortality.

“They were very courteous to me,” he says of Thorup’s group, “but I noticed that they made an effort to pull me aside and have conversations quietly. I thought that was an attempt to prevent the audience from hearing it.”

Later, he says, when he hosted a session on HIV prevention, some of the dissidents showed up. “They were asking questions and I was pointing out places where I agreed with their positions, and reasons why I disagree with some of their positions. But when I would try to explain, they would interrupt and try to take it in a new direction and shout at me,” Fallon says.

It reached a point, he says, where a young woman in the audience burst into tears and pleaded with the dissidents to let him make his point.

Fallon feels that in the epidemic’s early days, there were good reasons to ask whether HIV was the cause of AIDS. But as far as he’s concerned, all these questions have been answered.

Other AIDS experts don’t even find these issues worthy of discussion.

When asked about the dissidents, Doris D. Crumbley, a spokeswoman in the Office of Communications at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for HIV, STD & TB Prevention, makes it clear that the center doesn’t grant interviews about this topic. “If we gave interviews,” Crumbley says, “it would be like giving credit to those sort of allegations, and we don’t.”

Instead, she says, they have taken to responding with a faxed statement titled “HIV: The Virus That Causes AIDS.”

The one-page press release says, among other things: “Infection with HIV causes a progressive decline in the function of the immune system, making HIV-infected individuals vulnerable to serious life-threatening illnesses. To date, more than 400,000 people have died from HIV-related illness in the United States. ... Clearly, more research is needed on the factors that contribute to HIV infection and the development of AIDS. However, conclusions of more than two decades of epidemiological, virologic and medical research are that HIV infection is transmissible through contact, injecting drug use, perinatally (from mother to infant), and from receiving blood or blood products. Virtually all individuals infected with HIV will eventually develop AIDS in the absence of effective treatment.”

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has responded, as well. They posted a document on their Web site called “The Evidence That HIV Causes AIDS,” which contains a segment titled “Answering the Skeptics.” The text is divided between “Myth,” the dissidents’ views, and “Fact,” the NIAID’s position.

The NIAID acknowledges that there are important details about the pathogenesis of HIV that remain to be explained, but they point out that a complete understanding of the pathogenesis of a disease is not a prerequisite to knowing its cause.

While the document does not include a byline, there are many references to studies, or abstracts of studies, and graphs. The dissidents’ writings also reference studies, graphs and articles.

You could bounce back and forth trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong.

For instance, HIV tests. Groups like Alive & Well will tell you HIV tests only detect antibodies, not the virus, and that these tests are unreliable. They present a list of 60 things that can cause false positives, ranging from pregnancy to flu shots.

The NIAID Web site states that “HIV antibody tests exceed the performance of most other infectious disease tests in sensitivity (the ability of the screening test to give a positive finding when the person has the disease) and specificity (the ability of the test to give a negative finding when the subjects are free of the disease), and that the degree of accuracy is 98 percent.”

How do they know how accurate it is? The NIAID Web site explains that ELISA and Western blot tests can be confirmed with viral load tests, which are more expensive and not widely used for routine testing.

Maggiore recently attempted to get a viral load test. She was being interviewed by 20/20 and because a detractor accused her of being HIV-negative, she agreed to be tested on camera. She also asked for a viral load test.

“They told me I couldn’t take the viral load until my HIV test result came back positive,” she says, “because they can’t administer viral load to people who are negative, because the tests are so sensitive they will detect a viral load in people who are negative.”

What kind of ringing endorsement is that, she asks, for the tests that confirm the antibody test?

It’s easy to see why the more people learn, the more they question. In fact, the deeper you get into researching these theories, the more you begin to feel like you’re in the middle of a small, well-referenced war, complete with footnotes, studies and statistics. Many people emerge from this war wanting proof, Thorup among them.

Correlation, he says, does not prove causation.

Like Mullis, he’s still searching for the name of the person who isolated HIV from an AIDS patient and proved it was the culprit.

“Not Gallo, because we know he didn’t do it,” Thorup says. “He made the claim but he didn’t discover that HIV causes AIDS. He just pretended to. He was totally discredited later. So, who was the guy? Luc Montagnier doesn’t take the blame. … So, the guy who discovered this, if it is true that HIV causes AIDS, should have a Nobel Prize and we should know his name. He shouldn’t be anonymous. Who is he? He should have hospitals named after him.”