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Are These Facts News to You?

Why are we not getting all the facts about HIV and AIDS? Why do media reports uncritically promote HIV testing and the notion that everyone is at risk for AIDS? Why do the AIDS organizations supported by our tax dollars and donations leave the information addressed in this book out of their education programs and advertising campaigns? Some answers to these questions may be found by examining our current AIDS funding and research systems which offer little incentive for critical review, forthright discussion and innovation, but which are the source of most AIDS news.

Total tax dollars spent on AIDS presently exceeds $50 billion. Annual AIDS funding increases every year and is one of the only areas of the federal budget that has faced no threat of cuts. The high priority given to AIDS is based on the notion that AIDS poses a widespread and ever-growing health threat to all Americans. Since the government institutions responsible for generating official AIDS reports are the recipients of these multi-billions in AIDS dollars, it is understandable that the information they disseminate would support, rather than challenge the idea that AIDS is a large and growing problem. Their official reports are the basis for most AIDS newsreports that are not analyzed or investigated before they are repeated by the media and AIDS groups.

Investigative media reports on AIDS are generally discouraged because of sensitivity to the many social and political issues that surround HIV and AIDS. AIDS awareness, AIDS drugs, safe sex, and HIV testing are among the myriad concepts about AIDS that have been integrated into popular culture. Widespread acceptance of these concepts makes challenges to current views on HIV and AIDS appear highly controversial or even too dangerous to report. As orthodox AIDS expert and Nobel Laureate Dr. David Baltimore has declared, "There is no question HIV is the cause of AIDS. Anyone who gets up publicly and says the opposite is encouraging people to risk their lives."155

The Los Angeles Times recently acknowledged the factors that can influence AIDS news in "Protest Averted," an article that recounts the decision by a local TV station to alter a broadcast that mentioned decreases in AIDS: "After being pressured by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, KCBS-TV Channel 2 has revised a station editorial on AIDS, deleting the line that stated 'A new report by the CDC indicates that AIDS is down in all categories and is not an epidemic.'"156

Many AIDS activist organizations charge that critical examination of HIV and AIDS is equivalent to promoting unsafe sex and may cause HIV positives to stop or refuse necessary pharmaceutical treatment. One such group, the San Francisco based drug advocacy organization Project Inform, brought their concerns regarding AIDS critics before the National Academy of Sciences. Project Inform's founder, Martin Delaney, is a nationally recognized AIDS activist and a member of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Council on AIDS. The group's National Board of Governors includes HIV codiscoverer Dr. Robert Gallo and award-winning AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho. In 1997, Delaney petitioned the Academy asking them to expel members who engage in public challenges to the HIV=AIDS paradigm.157

In his letter to the Academy, Delaney denounces scientists who make information that questions AIDS available to "young and poorly informed people struggling with HIV infection [whose] natural inclination toward denial gives them a seemingly legitimate way to ignore a positive HIV antibody test, to cast aside...safe sex, and to forgo the complex challenge of multi-drug combination therapy." He suggests that AIDS is an area of public health that should not be examined in public forums, reasoning that "just as the blanket of free speech doesn't sanction the person who yells 'fire' in a crowded theater, neither does academic freedom provide protection for irresponsible behavior by scientists," and draws a parallel to criminal behavior claiming that "it is difficult to distinguish [the] actions [of scientists who raise questions about AIDS] from those of a mass murderer."

Attached to Project Inform's appeal is a list of supporting endorsements. Among the individuals and organizations joining the campaign to curtail critical discussion of AIDS science are AIDS Project Los Angeles; the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of San Francisco AIDS Research Institute; FAIR (Foundation for AIDS and Immune Research); the Florida AIDS Action Council; the United Foundation for AIDS; the Multicultural AIDS Coalition Inc.; Being Alive; Test Positive Aware Network; Gregory Britt, CEO of AIDS Research Alliance; noted AIDS researcher Dr. Michael Gottlieb; Brenda Freiberg, Chair of Public Policy at AIDS Service Center in Pasadena, California; Mary Lucey, President of Women Alive; and Dr. Martin Markowitz of the renowned Aaron Diamond Research Center in New York.

Project Inform's stance against information that questions AIDS is not unusual. For example, LA Shanti Foundation, a Los Angeles support network for people diagnosed with life-threatening illness, recently took a position on what many regard as life-affirming information about AIDS: My request to be considered as a speaker for their Positive Living For Us seminar, "a weekend for those who have tested positive for HIV...in which experts provide information about treatments, nutrition, sexuality, peer support, public benefits, insurance, legal matters, and other relevant topics," was not only rejected, my letter of inquiry was forwarded to the FDA's California AIDS Fraud Task Force, and to the District Attorney's AIDS Fraud Unit by the PLUS program manager, Ric Parish.158 When asked by The Valley Advocate newspaper for comments on the growing movement to rethink AIDS, Nancy MacNeill, program coordinator for the Los Angeles AIDS group Women Alive exclaimed, "We hate them. They're spreading dangerous information."159 Greg Gonsalves, founder of the New York City AIDS drug advocacy organization Treatment Action Group declared that "SPIN magazine's AIDS column is a public health menace" for its inclusion of alternative perspectives on AIDS.160 Imposing limits on what AIDS information may be brought before the public limits public awareness of different ideas about HIV and AIDS.

AIDS organizations that object to public questioning of AIDS science may take their lead from mainstream media venues where news that challenges common perceptions about AIDS is rare. Journalists who cover AIDS seldom engage in investigative reporting and many have built successful careers by reiterating official AIDS views. Uncritical AIDS reports are the ones that have earned awards and have afforded many writers celebrity status. Laurie Garrett of Newsday, for example, has received two Pulitzer Prizes for her coverage of AIDS and frequently appears on television alongside prominent AIDS researchers and government health officials. In a recent issue of Esquire magazine, Garrett described the PCR test, a test not indicated or approved for the detection of HIV and unable to measure actual virus, as measuring HIV with "exquisite specificity."161 Rather than rock the boat propelled by establishment AIDS views, high-level AIDS reporters generally dismiss or ignore challenges to the HIV=AIDS hypothesis.

Since the publications designed to reach HIV positives are funded almost entirely by AIDS drug manufacturers, it is not surprising that critical reporting on AIDS is absent from these venues. To cite just one example, AIDS pharmaceutical promotions filled 17 out of 31 pages allocated for advertisements in a current issue of A&U: America's AIDS Magazine. Of the remaining 14 pages, nine were purchased by viatical settlement groups offering cash in exchange for the life insurance policies of HIV positives.162

The research labs that produce the studies and reports that are turned into AIDS news all rely on some form of federal AIDS funding. Since the late 1980s, government support for AIDS research has been predicated on adherence to the HIV hypothesis. Institutions that depend on government dollars for support must assume that HIV is the cause of AIDS, and grants are not available to scientists or clinicians whose work may challenge the HIV hypothesis. For example, no funding has been provided for studies that compare the health of medicated and unmedicated HIV positives in matched control groups, for conducting viral load tests and T cell counts on HIV negatives matched to AIDS risk groups, or for verifying the accuracy of HIV antibody tests through isolation of actual virus in people with positive test results.

One well-known casualty of the AIDS funding system is Dr. Peter Duesberg of the University of California at Berkeley. Federal support for his laboratory was not renewed after his 1987 article in Cancer Research that questioned Gallo's HIV hypothesis and proposed an alternative AIDS hypothesis.163 Before 1987, Duesberg received ongoing funding as a recipient of the NIH's prestigious Outstanding Investigator Award. He was also a Nobel candidate for his discovery of oncogenes, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Since raising challenges to the HIV hypothesis, Duesberg has had 21 consecutive research grant applications rejected by the NIH and other federal and state funding sources.164

Pharmaceutical company grants are another important source of AIDS research money that make objective circumstances for drug studies almost impossible to achieve. Surprisingly, it is not considered a conflict of interest when AIDS researchers own stock in the companies whose products they test, or when they are hired to run the drug trials they publish in medical journals. In fact, it is common practice for drug companies to pay researchers to author favorable articles about their products.165

Many AIDS scientists previously employed by the US government have gone into private AIDS enterprise, a practice that further blurs the lines between news, public relations, and private interests. For example, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Donald Francis, used his reputation in government AIDS work and his access to the media to raise $40 million in private investment capital for his AIDS vaccine company VaxGen.166 In a recent CNN report on VaxGen, Francis promoted an AIDS vaccine as "the only way to stop a virus that is essentially 100 percent fatal."167 In fact, most media stories that incite fear of AIDS and praise AIDS drugs derive from press releases or studies generated by AIDS drug developers. Since the pharmaceutical industry, like any other profit-oriented business, seeks to increase sales and profitability, expand its consumer base, and maintain a favorable public image, it is understandable that their press releases would promote continued success rather than provide critical or unfavorable information. However, their press releases are rarely questioned or scrutinized before being reported as news.

While America's institutions of higher learning are considered appropriate arenas for exploration of new ideas, open debate and discussion, this is often not the case when it comes to AIDS. To take just one recent example, members of the Graduate Students Council at Einstein College of Medicine in New York were discouraged from having their invited guest, Dr. Peter Duesberg, speak on campus. After being voted the student-selected speaker over orthodox AIDS researcher Dr. David Baltimore, and NIH Director Dr. Harold Varmus, Duesberg was informed that faculty members had pressured students into canceling the event. As student council chairman Robert Glover explained, "The general consensus is that many people would be offended by Duesberg's visit."168

As AIDS advocacy and service providers have grown from grassroots groups into multimillion dollar corporations, it has become harder for leaders to consider new ideas and approaches to resolving AIDS. For example, the success formula for the $45 million nonprofit AIDS Health Care Foundation of Los Angeles is providing AIDS drugs to people who test HIV positive.169 Also, much of the money spent by AIDS groups comes from grants by pharmaceutical companies. To take just one example, the Washington, DC based National Association of People with AIDS receives funding from Merck, Glaxo-Wellcome, Roche, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.170 Such situations provide little incentive for challenging popular ideas about HIV and AIDS.

There are an estimated 90,000 AIDS organizations in the US, about one for every six Americans ever given a diagnosis of AIDS.171 Few, if any, of these groups evaluate the news they pass on to us in their education and awareness campaigns. Most repeat unexamined press releases from government agencies, the pharmaceutical industry and government-funded labs to the exclusion of all other information. And most will not participate in public discussion of the questions raised in this book.

Over 100 AIDS groups, AIDS specialists and researchers have declined my invitation to engage in a public dialogue on the validity of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis, the accuracy of HIV tests, and the safety and efficacy of AIDS treatment drugs. Their names are posted on the Alive & Well Alternatives website at www.aliveandwell.org.

 

Can Popular Consensus Be Wrong?

Throughout history, the medical and scientific communities have been in near unanimous agreement on causes and treatments for diseases that turned out to be absolutely wrong. Mass consensus on incorrect theories has often impeded vital research, delayed the development of cures or effective therapies for many conditions, and cost countless lives.

A number of medical protocols once deemed the standard of care have later proved to be harmful, and even deadly. For example, the 1899 edition of the Merck Manual, the prestigious medical text physicians worldwide regard as their bible, officially recommends poisons such as arsenic, ether, chloroform, turpentine oil, mercury, and strychnine as treatment for anemia, constipation, earaches and headaches.183 Before modern-day doctors agreed that exposure to X-rays and other forms of radiation cause genetic damage and cancers, radiation was routinely administered for tonsillitis, acne, ringworm, and enlarged lymph and thymus glands.184

DES (Diethylstilbestrol), a synthetic hormone given in the 1950s to prevent miscarriages in pregnant women was later found to cause cervical cancer and sterility in the daughters of women who used it.185 Thalidomide, a popular sleeping aid prescribed during the same era was banned after it caused limb deformities in many babies born to women taking the drug.186

During the 1960s and 70s, an entire epidemic was caused by Clioquinol, a widely used prescription medicine for diarrhea. For 15 years, doctors and scientists blamed a virus for the sudden outbreak of a new intestinal disorder and gave suffering patients the very drug that was the cause of their illness. By the time a minority view was considered and the drug responsible for the epidemic was finally banned, thousands had died and many victims were left blind or paralyzed.187

The earning power of "annuity medicines"drugs used throughout a lifetime to control symptoms wields great influence over healthcare consensus today. To take just one example, stomach ulcers have been traditionally blamed on stress, diet or excess acid. For fifty years, doctors routinely prescribed antacid drugs for temporary relief, drugs that usually prompt the stomach to produce more acid. Surgery to remove portions of the stomach or to cut sensitive stomach nerves was the state of the art in ulcer treatment until the 1976 arrival of Tagamet, a pharmaceutical that blocks acid secretion.188 By 1980, annual sales of Tagamet had reached $600 million, inspiring Fortune magazine to call it "one of the most stunningly successful products in the history of American business." In 1981, a similar drug Zantac was approved for use, and since 1988, has been the biggest selling drug in history.189 Neither drug gets rid of ulcers which remain a chronic, but more manageable problem. In fact, profits from treating the ongoing symptoms of ulcers may be preventing access to a simple, inexpensive cure discovered more than 15 years ago: A two-week course of antibiotics that kill the H pylori bacteria responsible for 80% of ulcers. Since doctors rely on drug companies for treatment updates and continuing education, and the drug companies are not promoting the new findings, patients and healthcare practitioners remain unaware of the important breakthrough.190

 

Conventional Wisdom: Words from the Mainstream

 

"There is no definitive peer-reviewed scientific literature on the long term efficacy of protease inhibitors, yet it would be criminal not to use them."

"Important safety information: About 5% (5 in 100) of patients who take ZIAGEN have a serious allergic reaction that may result in death. If you have skin rash or two of the FOLLOWING SYMPTOMS, STOP TAKING ZIAGEN AND CALL YOUR DOCTOR IMMEDIATELY: fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain, severe tiredness, achiness, or generally ill feeling...

"The most common side effects of ZIAGEN are skin rashes, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, tiredness, muscle and joint pain, generally ill feeling...Most of these side effects do not cause people to stop taking ZIAGEN."

Glaxo-Wellcome ad for the anti-HIV drug ZIAGEN, March 1999

"If the virus doesn't get you, the drugs you take will."

"One of the major barriers to effectively treating HIV is that most people do not feel sick at the time they are offered anti-HIV medications. In fact, it is only after starting the medications that they begin to feel sick."

"Here we are, knocking down handfuls of drugs that nobody really knows a lot about...and as research keeps coming up with newer and better medications that we also don't know very much about, we'll take them anyway. We're knocking down chemicals that are totally, completely foreign to almost everyone, including nature...but with a little luck, a positive outlook, and good nutrition, health improvement will happen."

"Some new AIDS drugs are beginning to produce serious toxic conditions in patients: an increased prevalence of premature heart disease, a serious form of obesity known as lipodystrophy, and liver disease. What we have is a tremendous improvement over what we used to have, but we must find ways to reduce life-threatening toxicity. That's why the search for a cure for AIDS, however unlikely, should not be given up."

"Failures are occurring right and left...They aren't dying of traditionally defined AIDS illnesses. I don't know what they're dying of...but they're just wasting and dying. While we are making good guesses, they are just guesses. We don't know what we are doing."

"When there wasn't effective [AIDS] treatment, money being wasted didn't matter so much."

"If the spread of HIV continues, by 2001 there could be ten billion people infected hypothetically...however the population of the world is only five billion. Could we be facing the threat of extinction during our lifetime?"

"Remember the APLA position: HIV is a necessary but not sufficient cause of AIDS."

"Question for Class Discussion: You have just read some of the evidence for and against HIV being the cause of AIDS. Assuming you agree with the vast majority of HIV/AIDS investigators worldwide, that HIV does cause AIDS, do you think there comes a time at which dissenters forfeit their right to make claims on other people's time and trouble by the poverty of their arguments and by the wasted effort and exasperation they have caused?"

"We don't know what the long-term effects of AZT use during pregnancy might be, but so far we have seen virtually no adverse effects in the short term...Not one single tumor. Not one...I mean [the children] have cancers, lymphomas, and other problems like that...but there's no reason to link those cancers to AZT."

"I know we've seen some webbed fingers...but these birth defects are cosmetic and don't interfere with life."

"We are still very confused about the mechanisms that lead to CD4 T cell depletion, but at least now we are confused at a higher level of understanding."

"The diagnostic criteria accepted by the AIDS surveillance case definition should not be interpreted as the standard of good medical practice."

"Sometimes we virologists have a virus in search of a disease."

"An AIDS vaccine should be ready for testing in about two years."

"Newark and New Jersey have begun casting their nets for test subjects for the world's first full-scale clinical trials of an AIDS vaccine. AIDSVax is a genetically engineered drug...that triggers [HIV] antibodies that may enable a person to better protect himself as soon as he is exposed to the real virus, before the immune system is devastated. Dr. Krim of AmFar said 'AIDSVax is worth a try. And even if it is ineffective, it will be a good rehearsal on how to recruit for and test other vaccines.'"

 

Public Health, Public Relations, and AIDS

After nearly two decades of warnings about the impending heterosexual AIDS epidemic, none has materialized. In contrast to the dire predictions and despite widespread HIV testing, AIDS has remained almost exclusively confined to the original risk groups.172 Even within risk groups, the numbers have never reached expected proportions and have been quietly diminishing for over five years. As AIDS in America has failed to live up to its terrifying reputation, our attention is directed to other parts of the world where harrowing estimates go unchecked and vastly exceed actual diagnoses.173

Information from the US Centers for Disease Control reveals that the disparity between official AIDS reports and actual AIDS data began in 1987. At that time, public health agencies elected to ignore their own findings in favor of promoting the notion that "everyone is at risk for AIDS."174,175 Although epidemiology indicated this claim was not and would probably never be true, marketing research concluded that widespread support for AIDS would be impossible unless AIDS was considered a widespread health threat. Responding to Gallup Polls and PR studies, the CDC decided on a strategy that disregarded the facts in order to "mobilize support for public funding."175 As CDC virologist Dr. Walter Dowdle admitted, "As long as this was seen as a gay disease, or even worse, a disease of drug abusers, this pushed the disease way down the ladder" of funding priorities.

The CDC's early decision to overestimate AIDS and magnify the risks launched one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. In 1986, the majority of Americans did not feel at risk for AIDS; by 1988 more than two-thirds thought a full scale epidemic was likely, and by 1991, most believed that even married couples faced a substantial risk of contracting AIDS.175 Federal tax dollars allocated to AIDS doubled the first year of the CDC ad campaign, and by the early 90s had topped $1 billion a year.

While concern and support for AIDS has multiplied and spread among millions of Americans, AIDS itself has not. This discrepancy has required a careful management of information and the need for constant advertisements, predictions and news reports that perpetuate ideas about AIDS that are out of sync with reality. Instead of revealing hard numbers and cold facts, most public health and AIDS organizations, along with the media, dispense reports that employ misleading percentages, alarming estimates, or cumulative totals for AIDS that disguise the realities of the epidemic.

The use of cumulative totals makes it possible to cite ever-growing numbers for AIDS even as AIDS is actually declining. Until 1997, despite steady decreases that began four years earlier, AIDS in America was almost universally described as an increasing problem, an image supported by the use of cumulative case numbers. For example, the total of new adult AIDS cases in the US in 1996 was 5,000 less than in 1995, but by adding the 1996 cases to the total number of cases reported since 1981, the decline of 5,000 was portrayed as an increase.176

Percentage calculations can turn drops into rises and are frequently used to make small numbers appear impressive. For example, in 1998 the number of new cases of AIDS among women decreased by more than 2,000, but at the same time, the percentage of total cases that women represent increased by 1%. This 1% difference in percentage is used to make the claim that AIDS is increasing among women.176 The warning that heterosexuals are the fastest growing AIDS risk group is based on this same misleading use of percentages. In fact, cases of AIDS have been declining in all risk groups since 1993.177

Such statistical sleight of hand is not exclusive to the US media or American AIDS organizations. In Canada, a nation with an extremely low incidence of AIDS, government AIDS officials and the media play up the few cases there are and often perform their own magic with the numbers. For example, in 1995 new AIDS diagnoses among Canadian women totaled 175. This figure dropped to 165 in 1996, and then to 88 in 1997. News reports did not celebrate these decreases or the fact that in a country with some 15 million females, only 88 women were diagnosed with AIDS that year. Instead, the increased percentage of cases among women, from 8.8% of all AIDS cases in 1995 to 15.4% of AIDS cases in 1997, led Canada's Laboratory Centre for Disease Control (LCDC) to pronounce that women with AIDS made up "the highest proportion [of AIDS cases] observed since monitoring of the epidemic began."178

Estimates that can make anything seem possible are commonly used in AIDS news reports and advertising campaigns, and although the word "estimate" is crucial to qualifying claims, it is often omitted from ads and media reports. To take just one example, advertisements for the "Until There's A Cure" AIDS bracelet use blood-red capital letters to proclaim "16,000 people a day are introduced to HIV by testing positive."179 It is necessary to contact the bracelet company in order to learn that the figure cited in the ad is an approximation based on global WHO estimates which are not even based on HIV test results.180

WHO estimates for AIDS in developing areas of the world such as Africa are the basis for many news reports. Although these estimates bear little resemblance to actual numbers of AIDS cases, the discrepancy might understandably be explained by the need to estimate a certain amount of AIDS cases in undiagnosed persons. However, the ratio of diagnosed cases to estimated cases inexplicably varies among African nations, ranging from nine estimated AIDS cases for every one case diagnosed, to as high as 69 for each single case.181 For example, the WHO ratio for AIDS in Zimbabwe is 10/1, while the ratio of 48/1 is used next door in Mozambique, which changes to 33/1 across the border in neighboring South Africa.

Estimates are often combined with predictions, a mix that can produce particularly spectacular results. One recent example is a Reuters news release that announced "China has an estimated 400,000 people with HIV although confirmed cases [since the beginning of the epidemic] are only about 11,000." In this same report, "unidentified experts" went on to predict that these 11,000 cases could grow to "one million by the end of next year."182

 

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