Theory discounted

Helen Rumbelow

The Times (London) 4 Sept. 1999

A high court judge yesterday ordered the four-month-old daughter of an HIV-positive mother to be tested for the virus, despite opposition from both the child's parents.

Mr Justice Wilson said that he made his landmark decision in favour of the child's right to life, causing widespread implications for parents' ability to choose treatment for their children.

The evidence showing an HIV test was in the interests of the baby was overwhelming compared with the views of the parents, the judge said in his 90-minute judgment.

The parents are alternative health practitioners who are "vehemently opposed" to the test as they do not believe HIV causes AIDS, and are convinced that the conventional medical treatment of the virus does more harm than good.

"This case is not about the rights of the parents, and if, as the father has suggested, he regards the rights of a tiny baby to be subsumed within the rights of the parents, he is wrong," Mr Justice Wilson said.

It was the mother's "tragic plight to be infected with this virus in a way that can attract no moral blame," he said. "But she, and the father who loves her, cling to their theories with the intensity of the shipwrecked mariner who clings to the plank of wood."

The parents, who cannot be named for legal reasons, were considering appealing, their solicitor, Alison Burt, said. Only the baby's father was present to hear the judgment.

The decision raises serious questions as to how social workers from Camden Borough Council, who brought the case under the 1989 Children Act, will enforce the girl's medical treatment if the parents oppose it.

Mr Justice Wilson said that if the baby tested positive for the virus, the courts might order that she begin a course of drug therapy designed to minimise the impact of the virus.

"The parents may reject my advice, but they do so in ignorance of the facts. They cling to the hope that their baby is not infected," he said.

The judge noted that both parents were devoted to the baby and that they were "knowledgable and concerned" about HIV. But, he said, the birth of the baby went against every piece of medical advice on protecting children against HIV. The mother, 33, had known that doctors advised HIV-positive pregnant women to take appropriate medication, to deliver via Caesarian section, and not to breast-feed. But she had sought out a sympathetic midwife and delivered the baby at her north London home.

It only weeks after the birth that the alarm was raised when a GP carrying out a routine check-up read the mother's notes and found she was HIV-positive. The mother had been breast-feeding the child ever since the birth, which doubled the risk of her passing the virus to her child. The father, 36, has tested negative.

The British Medical Association said that it backed the ruling, as did the Terrence Higgins Trust, a leading AIDS charity, because of the advances made in the treatment of HIV.

But the National AIDS Trust said it was "extremely regrettable" that court intervention was thought necessary.

Theory discounted

The idea that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, championed by a small but vocal minority, appeals to conspiracy theorists but has never been accepted by most scientists (Nigel Hawkes writes).

Its originator, Peter Duesberg of the University of California at Berkeley, blamed the AIDS epidemic on the use of recreational drugs by homosexuals, and said that many of the symptoms of the disease were side-effects of the drugs used to treat it.

But in fact there is plenty of evidence linking HIV to AIDS. People with depressed immune systems, but without evidence of HIV infection, do not develop AIDS, as long-term studies have shown, while those with HIV do.