Health

Rethinking AIDS

A growing lobby challenges the HIV connection

MARK NICHOLS April 12 1999
Health

Rethinking AIDS

A growing lobby challenges the HIV connection

MARK NICHOLS April 12 1999

Rethinking AIDS

Health

A growing lobby challenges the HIV connection

Christine Maggiore tested positive in 1992 for HIV, the virus blamed for more than 12 million deaths in the global AIDS epidemic that began in the late 1970s. Yet today, like many HIV carriers who evade the disease for a decade or longer, she remains free of symptoms. “I consider myself to be exceptionally healthy,” insists the 42-year-old Maggiore. She attributes that to the fact that she has never taken any of the powerful drugs routinely prescribed for people with HIV. In fact, Maggiore believes HIV is probably harmless—and plays no part in the sickness and deaths attributed to AIDS. The articulate Maggiore, leader of a Los Angeles-based group called Alive and Well, has emerged as a leading spokeswoman for a small but persistent fringe movement whose members challenge the conventional wisdom that HIV causes AIDS—or that AIDS is an infectious, sexually transmitted disease.

The dissenters argue that physicians blinded by the HIV “myth” are harming patients by prescribing drugs that can themselves undermine the human immune systems. “It is tragic,” says Gilbert Tessier, secretary of the Vancouver chapter of HEAL (for Health Education AIDS Liaison), the New York City-based body that is the principal HIV dissent organization, “that so many people are being treated with toxic drugs for a virus whose existence is doubtful.”

But if HIV is not dangerous, what is causing AIDS? In the contrarian view, AIDS does not actually exist—it is, the dissenters argue, simply a label slapped on a group of conditions and diseases that include several types of cancer, pneumonia, tuberculosis and weight loss in people whose immune systems have been damaged by “lifestyle” factors such as drug abuse and malnutrition. As for HIV—the alleged pathogen at

the centre of orthodox AIDS theory—many dissenters claim that it is probably a harmless particle that may have been lodged in some families’ genes for countless generations. “If you are HIV-positive and go to a doctor,” says Maggiore, “whatever problem you have will be regarded as HIV-related.” Arguments like that are angrily rejected by mainstream medical experts and AIDS organizations. “There is a huge body of evidence showing that HIV is the cause of AIDS,” says Dr. Mark Wainberg, a prominent Montreal researcher and president of the Stockholm-based International AIDS Society. “I am totally contemptuous of the groups that dispute this—their arguments are a fundamental insult to all the people who have contracted HIV and died of AIDS.” Wainberg worries that the dissenters’ claims can persuade HIV-infected people to

refuse standard medical treatment, and sicken or die prematurely as a result. That fear is shared by officials in some AIDS organizations. “We hear of people with HIV who fall under the spell of these ideas,” says Tim McCaskell of Toronto-based AIDS Action Now. “They don’t get treated, they get really sick and die. That’s one of the dangers.”

For mainstream researchers, the success of protease inhibitors—a class of drugs designed to prevent HIV from proliferating in the human bloodstream—stands as impres-

sive proof of the HIV-AIDS connection. Protease inhibitors are not a cure, but they can dramatically prolong AIDS sufferers’ lives. Approved for use in Canada three years ago, their introduction coincided with a marked decline in North American AIDS deaths. According to Health Canada, only 60 deaths were attributed to AIDS last year, down from 1,419 in 1995. “I would have thought,” says Dr. Martin Schechter, director of epidemiology at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, who is con-

vinced that the new drugs are reducing the AIDS’ death toll, “that the advent of these successful new drugs would have put a nail in the coffin of the anti-HIV movement.”

It will likely take a lot more than a reduced rate of AIDS mortality to do that. If HIV causes AIDS, says Carl Strygg, a spokesman for HEAL Toronto, “then how do you explain that a large number of HIV people survive for years without taking these drugs?” Even if the HIV theory were decisively proved wrong, says chemist David Rasnick, a visiting scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the handful of academic researchers who question the HIV hypothesis, “how likely are the thousands of researchers who have staked their reputations on the HIV thesis to turn around and say, ‘Sorry, folks, we made a mistake?’ ”

Critics like Strygg and Rasnick have been contesting the HIV theory almost from the time, early in 1984, when American and French scientists announced that an obscure retrovirus—which came to be known as the human immunodeficiency virus— was the source of a deadly plague spreading among gay men. Founded in New York City in 1982 as an early AIDS support group, HEAL subsequently began challenging the HIV hypothesis. Today, HEAL has chapters in 24 North American cities, including Vancouver and Toronto, and five in Europe. HEAL and like-minded organizations do not have formal memberships, but they claim a substantial following. Maggiore says her organization has a mailing list of about 4,000, including many gay men and others who have tested HIV-positive.

One of the newest dissent organizations was launched in February, when David Crowe, a Calgary telecommunications consultant, set up the Alberta Reappraising AIDS Society, largely for the purpose of opposing the Alberta government’s policy of encouraging all pregnant women to undergo HIV tests. Such testing is dangerous, contends Crowe, because it often produces erroneous results. And the belief that they are HIV-positive can persuade healthy women to start using anti-viral drugs that can, claims Crowe, can cause cancer and birth defects.

like other arguments put forward by the dissenters, that claim is based, at best, on a partial truth. According to Dr. Susan King, a physician at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children who specializes in pediatric HIV infection, one AIDS drug, which now carries a warning, has been linked to birth defects, and although there are concerns about some other AIDS drugs, none has been clearly linked to cancer. For physicians battling AIDS, an equalling pressing concern is the harm that may be done by Christine Maggiore and her fellow campaigners who seem intent on pressing their case, even at the possible cost of human lives.

MARK NICHOLS