By Andrew Quinn

Reuters 21 Sept. 2000

San Francisco AIDS activists united Thursday to fight a faction of dissident "denialists" they accuse of physical intimidation and spreading misinformation claiming that the global AIDS epidemic is a myth.

"We say as a community, in one loud voice, no more," Michael Lauro, a volunteer at the group Survive AIDS, told a news conference called to announce a new coalition dedicated to battling the dissidents of ACT UP San Francisco.

"We're here to say that ACT UP San Francisco is blocking access to life-saving information, and we're going to hold them accountable."

The struggle over ACT UP San Francisco has taken center stage among AIDS groups in a city which was an early focus of the epidemic and has seen more than 18,000 city residents die of the disease since 1981.

ACT UP San Francisco, like other branches of the group around the world, won national headlines in the 1980s for staging guerrilla theater demonstrations and pressing vocally for the rights of AIDS patients.

But in San Francisco, opponents of ACT UP now say that the local chapter has been taken over by extremists who stalk opponents, spread lies and offer false hope to the seriously ill by claiming that AIDS is a myth and is not caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

The debate over HIV and AIDS is not confined to San Francisco. While an overwhelming majority of medical experts say the link between HIV and AIDS is incontrovertible, a handful of dissident scientists have challenged that view, and have drawn the support of at least one world political leader, South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Leaders of ACT UP San Francisco say they are fighting for free speech, saying established AIDS groups are little more than tools for a pharmaceutical industry that pushes expensive and toxic drugs on people who do not need them.

"The people who are accusing us of those acts are part of an AIDS industry that is rotten with corruption," said David Pasquarelli, one of the leaders of the San Francisco ACT UP group.

"The accusations are untrue, and they are attempting to deflect attention away from the real story: the deaths caused by the AIDS drugs that they promote."