Amelia C. Gormley

Amelia C. Gormley Is Here Today With Some Serious Thoughts About A Serious Subject – AIDS Denialism

HIV/AIDS Denialism

I’ve really struggled to think of a way to write this post, because I almost didn’t want to give this issue any press. I remember earlier this year in the early stages of the presidential campaign, President Obama’s campaign began releasing videos to address lies being told by their opponents, and one critic of this campaign said this was a very bad move because you should never, ever repeat your opponent’s claims, or they will stick in the minds of people who hear it and gain validity.

That’s kind of how I feel about AIDS denialism.

I’ll start by quoting Wikipedia on the subject:

HIV/AIDS denialism is the view held by a loosely connected group of people and organizations who deny that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune Ideficiency syndrome (AIDS). Some denialists reject the existence of HIV, while others accept that HIV exists but say that it is a harmless passenger virus and not the cause of AIDS. Insofar as denialists acknowledge AIDS as a real disease, they attribute it to some combination of sexual behavior, recreational drugs, malnutrition, poor sanitation, hemophilia, or the effects of the drugs used to treat HIV infection.

What are some of the claims made by AIDS denialists?

AIDS is not a well-defined disease entity but rather a sociopolitical construct (Culshaw) or a single name for numerous diseases;

HIV has never been isolated in pure form, so that the existence of HIV is questionable as is validation of HIV tests;

Antiretroviral treatments have never been proven in properly controlled trials to effect clinical improvement or better health, let alone extended life;

The existence of HIV has not been proven; HIV tests are unreliable; and there is no evidence for sexual transmission of HIV (Papadopulos-Eleopulos*)

HIV exists but it’s harmless (Duesberg, among others);

HIV is not sexually transmitted and does not cause AIDS (Henry Bauer, among others);

Pharmaceutical firms know that antiretroviral drugs are ineffective at treating AIDS but effective at causing AIDS (Rath and Farber);

AIDS deaths are caused by malnutrition, narcotics, and antiretroviral drugs.

Yeah, you read that right. They claim AIDS drugs cause AIDS. Pretty whacky, yeah?  Luckily, it’s a “theory” that seems to be becoming less relevant as the years pass, and how could it not with such notable supporters as Bryan Fischer,  spokesman of the American Family Association, a believer in Creationism who claims that homosexuality is to blame for the Nazi Holocaust. (I wish I were kidding.)

I admit, my discovery of the theory of AIDS denialism was not necessarily an intellectual one. I first learned about it on an episode of Law & Order: SVU (I watched the first seven seasons on DVD during the marathon 20-22 hour a day nursing session which was my son’s first ten weeks of life — and no, that’s not an exaggeration) called “Retro.”

It was, in true Law & Order style, not so much ripped from the headlines as ripped off from the headlines. It’s loosely based on the story of Christine Maggiore an HIV/AIDS denialist (sorry, they prefer to think of themselves as “dissidents”) who infected her daughter with HIV by breastfeeding while HIV-positive. Her daughter later died from pneumocystis pneumonia, the type of pneumonia found almost exclusively in immuno-compromised people and largely associated with AIDS. When Maggiore later died herself of AIDS-related pneumonia, some of her supporters went so far as to blame stress from the publicity of the L&O episode for making her sick. (Christine Maggiore’s Death: Lessons From a Tragedy)

Dying of AIDS-related illnesses is a trait seen in quite a lot of HIV-positive AIDS denialists, as you can see here

But Christine Maggiore is only a headline because she’s a white, middle-class woman in the United States. AIDS denialism is responsible for many more deaths, particularly in Africa, where an estimated 330,000 people have died and another 200,000 infections, adult and infant, have occurred because of Thabo Mbeki’s support of AIDS denialism during his former presidency.

In 2000, Mbeki called together a round table of experts, including Duesberg and his supporters, but also their opponents, to discuss the cause of Aids. Later that year, at the International Aids conference in Durban, he publicly rejected the accepted scientific wisdom. Aids, he said, was brought about by the collapse of the immune system – but not because of a virus.

The cause, he said, was poverty, bad nourishment and general ill-health. The solution was not expensive western medicine, but the alleviation of poverty in Africa.

In a new paper (PDF), Harvard researchers have quantified the death toll of Mbeki’s stance, which caused him to reject offers of free drugs and grants and led to foot-dragging on the part of his government over bringing in a treatment programme, even after Mbeki – under intense international criticism – had taken a vow of silence on the issue.

It’s conspiracy theory thinking, of course. Conspiracy theories are dangerous because they often contain enough pseudo-science to sound credible to the uninformed and are extremely seductive to people looking to reject painful truths. They’re also give a platform to people who want to paint themselves as fiery rebels against conventional wisdom and saviors of the unenlightened masses. There’s a lot that goes into conspiracy theory thinking and AIDS denialism. Psychologist Seth Kalichman does a brilliant job of dissecting the psychology behind pseudo-science, conspiracy theory adherence and AIDS denialism in this article.

So why did I decide to make AIDS denialism a significant plot point in Inertia (and onward through Acceleration and Velocity) and along Gavin and Derrick’s journey? Because this quote stuck with me:

Every now and again, this group wins a dollop of attention from the media. But this attention is always short-lived and the denialist movement retreats back into well-deserved obscurity.

So why am I talking about them? Because even though they’re irrelevant, they can still do damage. Each HIV-positive person who is pulled in by their misinformation and ends up not starting life-saving HIV treatment is one life that may be lost. Denialists can only be ignored to a certain extent. It’s our responsibility to inform the world about HIV, and that includes informing the world about the harmful information that denialists dish out.

And then later in that same article, Kalichman says:

What makes AIDS denialism different from other types of denialism (like Holocaust denial, 9/11 truth-seeking and all these other conspiracy theories), and what is particularly destructive about AIDS denialism, is exactly what you said. Where we turn to now for information is on the Internet. The AIDS denialists are so prevalent on the Internet that the odds are that, if you search for “AIDS treatment,” “AIDS cure” or “HIV/AIDS,” the hits that you’re going to get will be the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and Johns Hopkins University, and right under them is going to be Rethinking AIDS, the Alberta Reappraising AIDS Society and AIDS VirusMyth, the Web sites for AIDS denialists groups literally around the world.

How one can distinguish the science from the non-science is not obvious. They’re very slick. They have created scientific-looking publications. They write books and self-publish them. To the average person, it’s indistinguishable. What they have done is very successfully created confusion.

With those quotes in mind, the question I asked myself was just how much damage a person adhering to this theory can do to the unsuspecting. So throughout the Impulse trilogy, we hear the echoes of that question bouncing off of Derrick and Gavin as they establish their relationship and wonder what the future holds for Gavin.

Other links:
How to Spot An AIDS Denialist
Debunking AIDS Denialism


5 thoughts on “Amelia C. Gormley Is Here Today With Some Serious Thoughts About A Serious Subject – AIDS Denialism

  1. One wonders what can cause a person to deny such things as the horrors of this disease. Having lost friends and colleagues to AIDS is frightening. How I ever escaped is beyond me and I’m very thankful because in the 70’s and early 80’s we were all at risk. And I was no angel.


  2. Until I read Inertia, I had no idea there was even such a movement as HIV/Aids Denialism! Not a single clue.

    Do you think people live in a state of purposeful denial because they’d rather do that than be forced to change the way they live? I mean, in some ways it goes hand in hand with all the other things science and medicine tell us is bad for us, if not potentially fatal, but we keep doing them anyway (smoking, for example) because we’re human and it’s easier to do what feels good to us than it is to do what’s good for us.


  3. Thank you, Lisa, for hosting me today! It’s good, frankly, that it’s not talked about much, because I dread what would happen if it became a mainstream theory. Which is why I hesitated to even write about it.

    I think some of it is that people don’t want to change the way they live. Some of it is that people don’t want to live afraid. My chain-smoking mother once went on a rant to me about some half-baked notion that anti-smoking education was mere propaganda.



  4. Hi, Amelia, I’m so glad to have you here with us today!

    I absolutely agree with you that it’s an issue of people not wanting to be told they should live a certain way in spite of the fact the way they choose to live is dangerous to their own health and the health of others.

    Some of it is also the likely belief in the “Not-Me-I’m-Infallible-Syndrome”, especially for those who aren’t old enough to remember the days before there were drugs that finally gave people with HIV the prospect of not developing full-blown AIDS.

    And as the number of AIDS related fatalities continues to decline, I think it will lead to a greater sense of complacency in the younger generation. It’s a vicious cycle.

    I remember being sort of shocked at the initiative on the California ballot this election that now requires porn actors to wear condoms. It seems like such a no-brainer to me, yet I felt a bit leery about jumping up and down at the government insinuating itself in what goes on between two consenting adults. It’s a controversial subject, for sure.


    • Unfortunately, the California ballot initiative about condoms was made to score political points with the public and not out of any real concern for the actors’ themselves, because the actors have been making a lot of very good points about how it puts them MORE at risk:

      “Most sex involving one person’s penis in the vagina or anus of a partner lasts for three to thirteen minutes. On the set of a pornographic film, sex lasts for anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour and a half. Condoms tend to cause abrasions in the delicate tissue of a vagina or anus. These abrasions and tears can be painful, but more importantly they are open wounds in an orifice. As long as the condoms do not fail, this merely hurts and is an inconvenience. Condoms seem far more likely to fail when being used for an hour and a half than they are when being used for fifteen minutes. If a condom does fail in a situation where the orifice it is in has lots of open wounds, this increases the risk for transmission of an STI if one is present.”

      “The reigning prince and princess of porn want to do safer sex PSAs too. Their video work comes with condom-use encouraging disclaimers, and you’d see them if you weren’t illegally streaming porn in chunks on a Tube site.

      “This law doesn’t affect anyone but the adult film industry,” Deen sighs. “But we are the only community in the world with HIV transmission rate of 0. We haven’t had a case in almost a decade.””

      “Also enemies of the porn industry, according to Hartley, are those who seek to mandate condoms. She said that the length of on-camera sex scenes — and male performers’ members — make widespread condom use impractical: “by the time you’ve had 30 to 90 minutes of condom friction on your tender bits, there is abrasion, there is soreness, sometimes there’s a little swelling, it’s tender, it’s not comfortable.” And she argued that the industry standard — a combination of universal testing and external ejaculation — is better for performers’ health anyway. She said that in straight porn there have been no HIV-related deaths in the last 15 years (gay porn is, unfortunately, another matter, though condom use is the industry standard there), and that the rate of HIV among porn performers is actually much lower than that among residents of Los Angeles County in general. Hartley argued that the drive for condoms is “not about our health at all, it’s about politics, as always,” and that some people who advocate for it really want to bring the porn business down. She added,”

      This is probably going to get caught up in your spam filter lol. Hopefully it goes through.


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