AIDS DISSIDENTS SPONSOR FORUMS
By Liz Highleyman
Bay Area Reporter 23 July 1999
Most Americans feel confidant that the threat posed by AIDS is diminishing,
thanks to medical research that has identified the causative virus and
improved therapies to seek it out and limit its replication. But not everyone
is convinced, as is obvious from the actions of "AIDS dissidents" who post
flyers, spray-paint Castro sidewalks, and place newspaper advertisements
urging the community to "challenge the HIV myth." In addition, many people
have become increasingly disenchanted with standard combination anti-HIV
treatments in the wake of news about widespread drug failures and adverse
The best-known dissidents in San Francisco are members of the group ACT
UP/San Francisco, who are proud to resist what they call AIDS orthodoxy.
Their views – including that antiretroviral drugs are harmful, that safer sex
is unnecessary, and that animal testing of medical therapies is unethical –
have led to frequent (and sometimes violent) conflicts with other activists,
medical researchers, and leaders of AIDS service organizations.
ACT UP/San Francisco's targets have included national ACT UP founder Larry
Kramer and the Bay Area's other ACT UP group, ACT UP/Golden Gate, which holds
diametrically opposed views. ACT UP/SF's actions have frequently outraged
others in the gay and AIDS communities. This was perhaps best exemplified
when ACT UP/SF member Ronnie Burk dumped used cat litter onto the head of San
Francisco AIDS Foundation Executive Director Pat Christen at a public forum
ACT UP/SF's tactics have left them virtually isolated, but they continue to
spread their message. Although ACT UP/SF is the most visible group of
dissidents locally, other groups (some with overlapping memberships) also
question the AIDS orthodoxy. These groups include HEAL San Francisco, and
Alive and Well, formerly known as HEAL Los Angeles. Members of these groups
have claimed that the AIDS epidemic is over – if indeed it ever existed – and
that the world would be better off if people stopped using protease
This Wednesday, July 28, the San Francisco Chapter of HEAL will meet with
guest speaker Marcia Rendle Smith, Ph.D., a neuropath who believes the
western medical approach to disease doesn't work. Smith will offer advice on
ways people can take charge over their own health, and promises to explain
"why we get sick, and how the immune system can be nurtured back to health
without dangerous and intrusive treatments prescribed by allopathic
physicians." The meeting is open to any interested parties.
The last forum
About 90 people attended a larger forum co-sponsored by ACT UP/San Francisco
and Alive and Well last month, entitled "Rethinking AIDS: From Tragedy to
Triumph." It followed by two days a presentation by Dr. Peter Duesberg, a
University of California, Berkeley retrovirologist who is perhaps the most
well known opponent of the idea that HIV causes AIDS. The four panelists
shared the common belief that "the collection of illnesses grouped together
and called AIDS is not caused by a virus."
Dr. Charles Geshekter, a professor of the history of science, responded to
the common challenge to AIDS dissidents, "What about Africa?" Geshekter said
that the definition of an AIDS case in African countries is often based
solely on clinical symptoms such as persistent fever, cough, diarrhea, and
weight loss; he wryly observed that "by this definition, I've had AIDS."
Geshekter concluded that austerity measures promoted by agencies such as the
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have worsened access to health
care in much of Africa, and that "the classic symptoms of AIDS are the
classic symptoms of underdevelopment." Although Africans are suffering from
the same diseases as always, "No one wears ribbons for tuberculosis and the
lack of clean drinking water."
Christine Maggiore, director of Alive and Well and author of the book What if
Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?, first tested
HIV-positive in 1982 and has since received a series of negative and positive
test results. Maggiore emphasized that "there is no such things as an AIDS
test," only tests for HIV antibodies and genetic material, and presented a
long list of factors that can lead to false positive HIV antibody tests,
including recent pregnancy, various vaccines, transplants, bacterial and
viral infections, and a wide range of naturally occurring antibodies.
Maggiore condemned the fact that the HIV antibody test is used "to tell women
not to have children and to tell people not to have unprotected – or any –
sexual relationships." Although she has never taken any anti-HIV drugs,
Maggiore said she remains healthy and has a 21-month-old HIV-negative son.
She concluded, "You don't have to have initials after your name to make
decisions about your health," before leaving to breastfeed her child.
Breastfeeding is considered by many experts so dangerous to an HIV-negative
infant that one state, Washington, has gone to court to force a mother to
switch to formula.
Dr. David Rasnick, a protease inhibitor specialist, said that "after 24 years
of working with protease and protease inhibitors … I am unable to support
claims of clinical benefits." Rasnick noted that even the National Institutes
of Health (NIH), which publishes the federal HIV treatment guidelines, states
that anti-HIV therapy is based on "theoretical considerations" and that "no
long-term clinical benefit of treatment has yet been demonstrated." Rasnick
said he was not alone in questioning anti-HIV therapy, and presented quotes
from prominent AIDS researchers Dr. Jay Levy, Dr. Donald Abrams, and NIH
director Dr. Anthony Fauci to support his skepticism. A recent study from the
University of California at San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital
showed a treatment failure rate as high as 50 percent among people using
anti-HIV drugs under real-world conditions.
But what of the many people with AIDS who attribute their new-found health to
protease inhibitors, and the many reports of decreases in AIDS deaths,
hospitalizations, and rates of opportunistic infections coinciding with the
widespread use of combination antiretroviral therapy? According to Rasnick,
death rates have decreased largely because of the shift in the definition of
AIDS. Prior to 1992, the definition was based on various illness such as
Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia or symptoms such as wasting. In 1992, the
definition was changed to include a CD4 T-cell count below 200. Naturally,
said Rasnick, adding so many healthy people (that is, people who have HIV
antibodies but are otherwise not sick) to the pool of "people with AIDS"
caused the death rate to drop dramatically.
As for individual reports of Lazarus-like recoveries, Rasnick stated that
just as there are cases of people who have done very well on the new drug
combinations, there are also those who have done very poorly on the drugs,
and those who have done very well without drugs. Rasnick asserted that drug
benefits cannot be determined on an individual basis, but that only
long-term, placebo-controlled clinical trials can provide definitive proof.
Finally, Rasnick noted that when many people say they have "gotten better" on
anti-HIV therapy, they mean that their viral load has decreased and their
T-cell count has increased, not that they feel better; in fact, many people
felt fine before they started taking drugs, and the drugs have made them feel
ACT UP/SF's Michael Bellefountaine concluded the evening's presentation with
an overview of the politics of AIDS, after proudly listing among his
accomplishments the dousing of Dr. Margaret Fischl with red paint at the 1996
International Conference on AIDS in Vancouver, and the overturning of tables
at Project Inform's 1995 fundraising dinner featuring Fauci and ACT UP
founder Larry Kramer. Bellefountaine said that ACT UP/SF started out trying
to disprove the AIDS dissidents, but were instead convinced by them. To
rousing applause, he asserted that the AIDS industry has "subverted" what the
gay community set up, and that the community "must either reclaim it or
dismantle." He also emphasized the need to fight the increasingly
criminalization of people with HIV, including laws that make it illegal for
people with HIV to have sex without disclosing their status, and warned
against the possibility of directly observed therapy (as used in tuberculosis
treatment) in which people are forced to take medication. According to
Bellefountaine, "people with HIV who are living healthy, vibrant lives should
not be forced onto toxic therapies."
The panel presentation was followed by over an hour of questions from the
audience. When asked why blood transfusion recipients got AIDS if it was not
caused by a transmissible virus, Rasnick answered that recipients of both
HIV-positive and HIV-negative blood had similar high rates of illness, and
that hemophiliacs did not begin dying in large numbers in the early 1980s,
but rather in 1987 when AZT was introduced. When asked to comment on the
conspiracy theory that AIDS was invented by the federal government to
decimate certain populations, Rasnick wryly stated that if HIV was invented
for such a purpose, "it's a dud." When asked why doctors would promote
harmful drugs if they know better, Maggiore stated "it's difficult to have a
career based on something that turns out to be wrong."
Dave Pasquarelli, also of ACT UP/SF, noted that several groups that advocate
mainstream views about AIDS and HIV treatment – including ACT UP/Golden Gate,
Project Inform, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and the San Francisco
Department of Public Health – were asked to participate in the forum, but all
declined the invitation.
Martin Delaney, the founding director of Project Inform, issued a written
statement claiming that "The scientific debate on the relationship of HIV and
AIDS ended in the middle 1980s. … No serious scientific group has accepted
any new evidence since then that suggests HIV is not the cause of AIDS.
"The proposed forum implies that these issues are considered debatable …
participating would be as fruitless as agreeing to debate evolution with a
gaggle of Christian fundamentalists shouting verses from the Bible."
Wednesday's meeting takes place at the Park Branch Public Library located at
1833 Page Street between Cole and Shrader in the Haight District. The meeting
will begin at 7:30 p.m. and will run until around 9:30. For more info call
(415) 835-0694. ACT UP/San Francisco also sponsors a public discussion group
that offers participants an opportunity to "talk with people who doubt
popular AIDS beliefs and question drug industry information." The group meets
the first and third Sunday of each month at 1884 Market Street. Call (415)
864-6686 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.