“Every epidemic throughout history has had its ‘denialists.’ Some epidemics have been blamed on rats, some on foreigners, Jews, or other disfavored local ethnic groups. Very often, epidemics have been blamed on the people who suffered from them, their illness being seen as some kind of moral failure. Sound familiar?”

– Martin Delaney, AIDS Activist, 2000 (From Seth Kalichman’s Denying AIDS)

Taking a break from analyzing the prehistory of the AIDS crisis, I want to jump ahead and look at one phenomenon that occurred after the HIV virus was discovered in 1984: HIV denialism. This might be the first of several posts on conspiratorial schools of thought about HIV/AIDS, because I think these conspiracies are important in the disastrous history of HIV/AIDS. I think they demonstrate many of the greater themes of the AIDS crisis that we will explore, like the tensions within society that allowed for such conspiratorial  schools of thought to develop, as well as the shift towards grassroots health activism in the face of disaster. Even today, conspiracy has had a massive impact on the way we think of HIV and AIDS.

Firstly, HIV denialism does not purport to the nonexistence of HIV/AIDS. It’s not like Holocaust denialism in that way. Instead, HIV denialists suggest that HIV itself is a harmless virus, and that AIDS is instead caused by antiretroviral treatments like AZT or other external ‘lifestyle’ factors like toxins, homosexual intercourse, drug abuse, poverty, and more. This theory derived from the work of Dr. Peter Duesberg, a controversial figure who created a counter-narrative to Dr. Robert Gallo’s work on what would eventually be called HIV (I’ll be focusing on Dr. Gallo and Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur institute in another post). He wasn’t the first denialist, however: Duesberg’s work drew from a tradition started by psychiatrist Casper Schmidt, who published a paper in 1984 called “The Group-Fantasy Origins of AIDS.” It described the AIDS crisis as an event of mass hysteria in which individuals acted out the tensions of society. There were also several journalists like John Lauritsen who were immediately skeptical of HIV being the cause of AIDS since its discovery in 1984. Additionally, Seth Kalichman argues in Denying AIDS that President Reagan himself acted to spread denialism by remaining silent on the issue until 1987, which I don’t find convincing: Reagan first publicly addressed the AIDS problem in 1985 and became active in its management soon after. Nonetheless, Dr. Duesberg was the most prominent character of the HIV denialist movement, as he had the weight of scientific authority to his claim.

Dr. Peter Duesberg’s involvement in AIDS research is quite complicated, as he acted both as a helper and a hamperer of scientific progress. Back in 197o he isolated the genetic cause of cancer, oncogenes, and demonstrated how  retroviruses could spread these cancer-causing genes within our DNA. His research provided a basis for the discovery of HIV, as well as the later development of antiretroviral treatments. But in the 1980’s, Duesberg drastically changed both the direction and the nature of his scientific inquiry. Using 19th-century scientist Theodor Boveri’s theories, he went on to disregard the role of retroviruses and oncogenes in causing cancer which was a direct contradiction to his earlier work. In 1987 he published an article in Cancer Research that applied Boveri’s theories onto the question of HIV as the retroviral cause of AIDS. This was the same year as the release of the antiretroviral AZT as well as the founding of activist group ACT UP. In this opportune moment of the AIDS crisis, Duesberg’s work began a movement of denialism that ultimately cost many believers their lives. Dr. Duesberg continued publishing articles that refuted the mainstream scientific understandings of HIV/AIDS, ignoring the great amounts of research that proved otherwise. In 1989 he went so far as to force the publication of his paper without peer review, which he continued to do throughout the nineties. His scientific misconduct eventually cost him his grants and his job at NIH, as well as the respect of the scientific community, in 1993.

Duesberg’s denialism found almost immediate traction with the public. Although it was never mainstream, many people from a variety of social groups and backgrounds found his results compelling: some of these people were living with HIV/AIDS and some were not, some had academic authority and some did not, many were socially conservative but some were not. Social denialism fed off the same homophobic, racist, and classist ideologies that shaped the initial response and prejudices to the outbreak: while denialism was shared by a huge spectrum of individuals, it also reinforced these cultural divisions within society, especially within marginalized groups. In fact, denialism was never a unified movement of thought: rather, it encompassed a huge range of interpretations that represented certain values and cultural conditions of different peoples.

Kalichman discusses the psychological aspects of these forming movements, describing them as mass psychological processes of interpretive denial fed by fear and suspicion. It made sense for the predisposed mind to deny that HIV caused AIDS if it meant that there was an alternative cure or treatment or vaccine for AIDS and not just a slow, painful death. It made sense if it meant that one could avoid transmission by avoiding ‘lifestyle’ factors like toxins or homosexuality or drug abuse or what have you. These movements gave people of all kinds a target to blame, whether it be gay people, poor people, the government, Big Pharma, or whoever/whatever else.  Nicoli Nattress discusses the four roles that people in the denialist movement tended to inhabit in her book The AIDS Conspiracydespite their variety of backgrounds and cultures:

  • The “hero scientists,” like Dr. Duesberg, lent this movement an objective validity.
  • HIV-positive icons, like Christine Maggiore, became living symbols of proof as they went on to carry out their lives without antiretroviral treatments.
  • “Cultropreneurs” who pretty much used the movement as a means to sell alternative remedies in the place of antiretroviral medications, like Matthias Roth and to a lesser extent Christine Maggiore.
  • Journalists like John Lauritsen who promoted the movement without criticism or questioning and often with a supportive perspective.

But as Kalichman and other educators mention, this avoidant reaction caused more harm than good, especially when it precluded people from actively participating in the prevention of AIDS. For example, as an HIV-positive denialist Christine Maggiore publicly avoided taking any preventative measures to inhibit mother-child transmission of HIV during her two pregnancies. While it appears her oldest child Charlie Scovill was born HIV-free, her daughter Eliza Jane Scovill began expressing AIDS-like symptoms in her infancy. Maggiore and her husband sought alternative treatments and therapies but tragically it was not long until the girl died of pneumonia at the age of three. Her autopsy showed that she clearly died of AIDS-related conditions, something her parents vehemently denied. In 2008 Christine Maggiore also died of pneumonia after being treated for six months with alternative medicines. She displayed several AIDS-defining conditions like oral candidiasis and disseminated herpes infection. She was only 52. As Kalichman argues, Maggiore’s case displays the dangers of maladaptive denial as it spreads mimetically from person to person: it first caused harm to Maggiore, then to her daughter, then to her however many followers who believed in the actions she took as a parent.

There are two things about HIV denialism that are important to analyze as part of the history of the AIDS crisis. Firstly, social denialism reinforced existing tensions within society. It worked both for and against the marginalized populations of society. The socially conservative movements tended to blame the spread of AIDS on ‘lifestyle’ factors like homosexuality or drug abuse, always employed as a means to ‘threaten’ their way of life. They characterized the government and the pharmaceutical companies as working towards this agenda as well. Meanwhile, minority-lead movements of HIV denialism blamed AIDS on the government as well: they felt it was used as a bioweapon to eradicate unwanted populations of black or gay or poor people. Both parties use a rhetoric that promotes fear of the other, something that occurs again and again during this disaster. This tended to have negative consequences for minority groups especially, as they could not employ proper AIDS prevention if they mistrusted the authorities that provided the AIDS education.

Secondly, the denialist movements tended to display the kind of grassroots civilian-lead organization that was also employed by AIDS activists. This demonstrates a shift in the responsibility of disaster management away from the government and towards the public sphere during the AIDS crisis. For AIDS activists this shift was crucial, as it allowed the protesters to force an end to political inaction and disorganization. But this shift also allowed denialism to develop as a series of movements which came to bias certain populations against growing bodies of research throughout the 1990’s. These minority populations, as I mentioned before, suffered even more due to these biases when they did not listen to AIDS educators about preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. As such, this shift in the responsibility of disaster management to civilians is somewhat problematic as it left many vulnerable peoples fend for themselves.

With the FDA’s release of highly active antiretroviral therapies (HAART), denialist movements quickly shrank into fringe groups as many former supporters found the proof they needed. But in the 2000’s American HIV denialism reached a more global audience when South African president Thabo Mbeki appointed known denialist Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as his Minister of Health. She spent the duration of term banning HAART which she denounced as “Western poisons” and encouraged the use of alternative cures like beetroot and ginseng. President Mbeki was educated about AIDS in his Presidential Advisory Panel by a team of medical professionals who were known to be HIV denialists, including Dr. Duesberg himself. Nicoli Nattress has estimated that these denialist policies caused approximately 343,000 deaths and 171,000 infections in South Africa.

There’s not really a happy ending to the story of HIV denialism. Even after the AIDS crisis ended according to my definition, this denialism continued creating states of disaster within the global stage. As such, HIV denialism remains vitally important in the disastrous history of the AIDS crisis.

Featured Image Credit: Rico, “HIV/AIDS denialism to last a decade,” depicting former President Mbeki.