THE HIV DISBELIEVERS
By David France
Newsweek 19 August 2000
Christine Maggiore is a different kind of AIDS activist -- one who tells
people to forget safe sex and stop taking their lifesaving drugs. Why?
One sweltering California afternoon a few weeks ago, Christine
Maggiore was sitting in her cramped office, still jet-lagged from the long
flight home from South Africa, where she'd attended the International AIDS
She hadn't yet found time to answer the "hundreds and hundreds, perhaps
literally thousands" of e-mail messages she'd received from people she'd met
there who were looking for AIDS literature or doctor referrals, or simply
wanting to pat her on the back. "All your work and dedication is
appreciated!!!" a typical message declared. She doesn't know when she'll find
time to catch up -- her whole life is behind schedule because of her AIDS
work. "My fiancÚ and I have been trying to find time to get married for
years!" she says.
But Maggiore, who heads Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives in Burbank, Calif., is
not your typical AIDS activist. In South Africa, some scientists spit nasty
epithets at her. Protesters marching outside the meeting hall threatened to
plug her and her galvanized followers with bullets. Why? Because Maggiore
takes the strange contrarian stance that HIV, which has been blamed in the
deaths of 18.8 million people worldwide, doesn't cause AIDS at all. She
exhorts people to stop taking their medications and stop worrying about
spreading their virus.
But Maggiore's influence here and abroad is swelling. The singer Nina Hagen
wrote a song for her, and Esai Morales, the actor, is a big funder. The
platinum-selling alternative rock band Foo Fighters promotes Maggiore's ideas
on its Web site. And in South Africa, Maggiore met privately with South
African President Thabo Mbeki, who endorses many of her beliefs. Mbeki's call
for more research into whether HIV causes AIDS dominated headlines from the
important biennial meeting. In response, 5,000 flabbergasted scientists
signed a declaration calling the laboratory evidence "clear-cut, exhaustive,
Such consensus doesn't impress Maggiore, a bright and compelling former
garment executive with no scientific training or college degree. Through
emotional newspaper columns, e-mail postings and lectures in such disparate
places as the University of Miami School of Medicine and the Rev. Al
Sharpton's National Action Network in Harlem, she continues to try to pick
apart the scientific literature, a strategy that especially appeals to people
with a beef against the establishment. "We're not saying that anybody is 100
percent correct or incorrect on this issue," Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel
told Newsweek. "Simply, there's information out there that is being blocked
Maggiore is convinced that the HIV doesn't cause AIDS. No medical journal has
ever proved to her it is dangerous. She calls standard HIV antibody tests so
oversensitive that they can show positive "if you've had a flu shot or if
you've ever been pregnant" (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
disagree), and she cobbles together reams of footnotes, anecdotes and package
inserts to prove it.
Then how does she explain all the deaths that have marked the pandemic?
Here's where her argument takes a conspiratorial turn. In Africa, despite
what health authorities say, people are simply not dying more than before,
she asserts. And she thinks the 420,000 Americans who have died of AIDS are
victims of the prescription drugs they hoped would save them. Or perhaps they
died from recreational drugs. Or maybe they succumbed to "a profound fear of
AIDS" itself. "We're not saying people haven't died of what is called
'AIDS'," Maggiore explained one afternoon in the sunny Burbank home she
shares with her fiancÚ, a 31-year-old video editor named Robin Scovill, and
her son. "We're just asking what is at the core of this incredible human
tragedy. And by looking at other avenues, might we better resolve this?"
There is no way to know how many patients she has persuaded to abandon their
medications or condoms, but Maggiore's detractors can barely contain their
anger. "Many people will die because they will go untreated," says Dr. Luc
Montagnier, the co-discoverer of HIV. White House AIDS policy director Sandra
Thurman says bluntly, "Christine is putting lives in jeopardy."
Disbelievers -- "flat earth" types who fervently doubt the conclusions of
science -- have been around since the Enlightenment. But they are staging a
resurgence today, partly in reaction to the unparalleled role science plays
in society. Disbelievers fear Big Science the way millennialists feared Y2K.
Fragments of contrarian evidence are enough to shake their faith in
everything from water fluoridation to global-warming statistics, childhood
vaccine programs to the artificial sweetener aspartame, the Holocaust to
evolution. Huge parcels of the World Wide Web are devoted to such exposes.
"We're at a moment for a lot of things where skepticism becomes a dogma,"
says Michael Shermer, author of a book about the antiscience backlash, "Why
People Believe Weird Things."
But what's in it for them? "The basis of denial is a need to escape something
that is terribly uncomfortable," says Boston College psychology professor
Joseph Tecce, who has studied Holocaust deniers and AIDS dissenters. "If
something is horrific, I might want to pretend it doesn't exist."
Christine Maggiore's horrific event came on Feb. 24, 1992, when, she says, a
routine blood test came back positive for HIV. She was 36 years old, single
and a partner in a successful clothing wholesaler. A former boyfriend also
tested positive. "I was mortified," she says. "According to the conventional
wisdom, I had just foolishly and irrevocably ruined my entire life."
Maggiore was not immediately a disbeliever. Initially, the oldest child of a
Los Angeles advertising executive sought the advice of doctors and planned to
start treatment. But some scientific principles of the disease never added up
to her. For one thing, she felt fine -- and still does. How could she have a
killer virus? "There was this empirical data from my own body," she says. "I
was ridiculously healthy."
Ultimately she discovered the work of Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg,
whose belief that AIDS is caused by lifestyle choices like promiscuity and
drug use rather than infectious agents have long been dismissed by his peers.
One spring evening in 1994, as she was sitting on a panel discussing AIDS
prevention, it finally struck Maggiore that she no longer believed in the
epidemic. "Being a practical person, it didn't seem to me after investigating
this that there were good reasons for me to live my life as if I were dying,"
Now, nothing can dissuade her. Take the 1999 CDC report detailing the wild
successes of protease inhibitors, the new class of AIDS drugs introduced in
1996. The study correlates a huge drop-off in classic AIDS-related infections
with data on how many of the new drugs were prescribed. "Prescriptions don't
mean people are actually taking the drugs," she objected. "Do you know how
many people flush their drugs down the toilet?" (In fact, she says, the
wholesale return to health is a direct result of that protest, in bathrooms
Today Maggiore is the most prominent foe of what she calls "the HIV equals
AIDS equals death paradigm," having sold or given away 28,500 copies of her
self-published booklet since 1995, in addition to the copies in French,
German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese. She founded Alive & Well,
which has spun off chapters around the globe and is affiliated with dozens of
like-minded groups representing perhaps tens of thousands of followers.
Their message has resonated among a number of gay men who, exhausted by 20
years of medical vigilance and daily toxic drug regimens, are increasingly
receptive to Maggiore's exhortation to "live in wellness...without fear of
AIDS." And they have reinvigorated long-simmering AIDS conspiracy theories.
According to a 1995 survey of 1,000 African-American churchgoers, one third
believed HIV was concocted by the government for racial genocide. When she
spoke before a crowded room in Harlem in 1998, spellbound members of the
audience likened her to the abolitionists, interrupting her with cries of
"John Brown lives!"
"If you told me five years ago I would be promoting the notion that HIV does
not cause AIDS, I would have said you were nuts. I believed adamantly that
HIV was a killer and these drugs were saving lives," says Michael
Bellefountaine, 34, a friend of Maggiore's who decided against taking
anti-HIV medication years ago. Now he attributes his survival to being
drug-free. Last month he attended a protest in San Francisco and chanted,
"HIV is a lie! It's toxic pills that made them die!"
AIDS educators already hold Maggiore and her acolytes responsible for an
upswing in new infections. San Francisco authorities just announced that new
HIV cases in 1999 were nearly twice as high as in 1997. "People are focusing
on the wrong thing. They're focusing on conspiracies rather than protecting
themselves, rather than getting tested and seeking out appropriate care and
treatment," says Stephen Thomas, who directs the University of Pittsburgh's
Center for Minority Health.
HIV renegades sometimes seem as if their main goal is mayhem, not
constructive discourse. For instance, the San Francisco chapter of ACT UP,
once a major force lobbying for more money for AIDS research, is now run by
dissenters who stage protests against other AIDS leaders -- regularly bathing
them in cat-box litter or spit. On Aug. 9, police charged two ACT UP members
with assault and battery for allegedly striking city health department
director Mitchell H. Katz and covering him with Silly String during a public
meeting. Similar antics now prevail among a half-dozen ACT UP branches.
"They're crazy," says Larry Kramer, who founded ACT UP in 1987. "They're
undoing all we've fought for."
Picking over a black-bean wrap at her kitchen counter recently, Maggiore
described herself simply as a person who asks questions others are
overlooking. The fact that she provokes hostility only emboldens her. She
sees only intolerance and recalcitrance among her detractors -- they "smack
of parental authority and religious authority," she said. Her brother Steven,
41, calls her a modern-day Copernicus.
But she soon made it clear that her disregard for HIV is not just an
intellectual gambit when her talkative 3-year-old son, Charlie, wandered into
the kitchen after a midday nap. She talked about how she conceived him
naturally and gave birth without drugs routinely given to prevent
transmission. She continues to breast-feed him today, according to the
family's pediatrician. Her family supports her in this, even though HIV can
be transmitted through breast milk and judges have charged mothers in similar
cases with child endangerment.
Maggiore and Scovill, Charlie's father, say they've never been curious to
test the child for HIV (Scovill does not know his own status). Their
pediatrician is not as sanguine. "I would not be opposed to testing his
blood," admits Dr. Paul Fleiss, who says the boy has been very healthy. "But
"He's a perfectly healthy little boy," says Scovill, bending to offer his son
a macaroon. Charlie was skeptical. "They're really good," the father insisted
patiently. "And for some reason they decrease viral load!" With that, both
parents had a good laugh at the silly AIDS goblin. Such is the power of
The Extremists versus the AIDS Experts
How Maggiore's book "What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was
Wrong?" conflicts with information on HIV from the National Institutes of Health:
** Issue: Are HIV tests accurate? **
The Fringe: No. More than 70 conditions can cause false positives, from
malaria to alcoholism. And people can revert to negative.
The Scientists: Yes. "Virtually 100 percent," experts say. In 20 years, just
five adults and 27 kids have mysteriously reverted to negative.
** Issue: Is HIV a deadly virus? **
The Fringe: No. Many people who test HIV-positive live "in wellness" for
years. Some say AIDS results from other factors.
The Scientists: Yes. Why some cases never progress is a puzzle, but all
researchers agree: HIV is sufficient to kill.
** Issue: Do AIDS drugs work? **
The Fringe: No. Their side effects are suspiciously similar to AIDS symptoms,
and the drugs are said to be lethal poisons.
The Scientists: Yes. They're toxic, but proven, life-prolongers -- many
people have taken them prophylactically without damage.
** The Issue: Can you forget the condoms? **
The Fringe: Yes. If your partner is not in a risk group, you're more likely
to be struck by lightning than HIV after one encounter.
The Scientists: No. That would be Russian roulette. HIV can be passed in a
single encounter. Why take that risk?