News & CommentaryArchive
Mar 07, 2007
The Danger of Denial
It is difficult to understand how - 25 years into the AIDS epidemic - such a thing as AIDS denial could exist. AIDS denialists argue that HIV does not cause AIDS and that anti-retroviral drugs are toxic and largely responsible for AIDS sufferers’ physical deterioration. Far from crank county fair tonic salesmen, the school of AIDS denial includes highly respected scientists, including Peter Duesberg, the German molecular biologist credited with discovering the ability of retroviruses to transform normal cells into cancer. Among Duesberg’s largest supporters is South Africa President Thabo Mbeki.
An article in the March 12 edition of The New Yorker (newyorker.com) provides an overview of AIDS denial and how it has influenced AIDS treatment in South Africa, where 5.5 million people are HIV-positive - more than 10 percent of the population - and nearly a thousand people die every day due to AIDS. And contrary to overwhelming scientific evidence, the country’s health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, argues that malnutrition is the cause of HIV; its cure, beets and herbal tonics. Anti-retroviral medications in this constellation are toxic poisons. Ingrained in this debate is a conflict between Western medicine and traditional cures, and Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang are quick to evoke racist motivations behind any evidence that links HIV to AIDS or promotes the use of ARVs. This tactic makes them somewhat impervious to criticism, given Western - especially American - sensitivity, as the lessons of Tuskegee are not that far behind us.
What this article, and the denial phenomenon to which it calls attention, highlights is that AIDS treatment and prevention are not simply a matter of getting enough drugs to countries that need them. Prevention and treatment efforts are constantly challenged by society - whether sexual pressures, social stigma, feelings of fear and shame or conflicting information about what AIDS is and how it should be treated—that prevent people who need help from seeking it.