AIDS Denialists Disputed At ITT Forum

by Gary Barlow .
Sunday Sep 5, 2010

Almost 26 years after the HIV virus was established as the cause of AIDS and some 15 years after drug treatments developed out of that discovery led to dramatic drops in AIDS mortality rates in the U.S., some people still propagate the belief that HIV doesn't cause AIDS and that the drugs used to treat it should be avoided.

Those beliefs were aired at a panel discussion sponsored by Knowledge and Wisdom Productions at the Illinois Institute of Technology Aug. 28. The panel included two AIDS denialists, authors Britnee Burke and Keidi Obi Awadu, and two people who disputed their arguments, epidemiologist Yaa Simpson, of the Association of Clinical Trial Services, and author and activist Ida Byther-Smith. Less than 20 people attended the discussion.

"People falsely believe that AIDS is a disease while in fact today it is used as a self-defining complex of diseases, symptoms and definitions," Awadu said.

Burke, who said she tested HIV-positive 17 years ago and has not taken anti-HIV medications, compared belief in AIDS to religious belief.

"My belief - HIV is a lie," she said.

Those assertions and others were refuted by Byther-Smith and Simpson.

"We can see a correlation when people take (anti-HIV) medications," Simpson said. "We see less deaths."

Byther-Smith told her story, of how she learned she was HIV-positive after being unknowingly infected by her then-husband. After it developed into AIDS, she was rushed to a hospital emergency room, where medical personnel did not expect her to live.

"I heard the nurse when I came in say, 'She came in through the emergency room, but she'll go out through the morgue,'" Byther-Smith said. "I was given up for dead."

But the antiretroviral drugs dismissed as dangerous and misguided by Awadu and Burke saved her life, Byther-Smith said.

"So here I am. I'm living," she said, detailing the AIDS medications she's taken since then. "For the last 10 years my viral load has been undetectable."

Byther-Smith refuted another statement by Awadu, that anal sex causes the illnesses associated with AIDS.

"Sperm was not intended to go into the anus," Awadu said.

But Byther-Smith, describing herself as "a Christian woman," said she was infected not by anal sex but by a husband who later admitted that he was infected through affairs he hadn't disclosed to her.

"Everybody who has this disease is not gay and everybody who has this disease is not having anal sex," she said. "I know this to be true."

Simpson displayed graphs showing AIDS prevalence, incidence and mortality rates in Chicago, saying the overwhelming statistics collected and studied here and around the world refute the "AIDS conspiracy" arguments of denialists such as Awadu and Burke.

"This cannot all be lies," Simpson said.

AIDS denialists have been around since the earliest days of the epidemic. But once effective therapies targeting the HIV virus made it possible for people living with AIDS to live normal lives - in countries where use of those drugs is widespread - prominent scientific critics refuted their earlier denials and questions and acknowledged that HIV is the common factor in AIDS.

One prominent HIV/AIDS doctor, Joseph Sonnabend, was at one time a skeptic of HIV's role in the disease, but after seeing the effect of antiretroviral drugs engineered specifically to combat HIV, he refuted that stance.

"Some individuals who believe that HIV plays no role at all in AIDS have implied that I support their misguided views on AIDS causation by including inappropriate references to me in their literature and on their web sites," Sonnabend has written. "I have successfully treated hundreds of AIDS patients with antiretroviral medications, and have no doubt that HIV plays a necessary role in this disease."

Another denialist often cited by Awadu and others, molecular and cell biologist Peter Duesberg, has been heavily criticized by his peers - as long ago as 1993, the then-editor of Science, refusing Duesberg's repeated demands to publish articles critical of the settled acceptance that HIV causes AIDS, dismissed Duesberg's theories.

"He forfeited the right to expect answers by his rhetorical technique," John Maddox wrote. "Evidence that contradicts his alternative drug hypothesis is...brushed aside."

At the panel discussion, Chicago Pastor Roger Ford, who is HIV-positive, strongly criticized the effort by Awadu, Burke and others to dissuade people from getting tested for HIV and to avoid HIV medications when they're appropriate.

"It concerns me today that we speak that there's no such thing as this disease," Ford said. "We're not becoming educated. We're telling things that are not true. Young people are dying... Don't tell a person not to go be tested."

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  • jtdeshong, 2010-09-05 20:42:14

    Pastor Ford hit the nail on the head. It is ok to believe whatever a person wants. However, when that belief leads that person to tell others to not get tested or not take meds, then that is highly irresponsible and borne out of an egotistical mind. JTD

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