Saturday 3 January 2009
Happy New Year and everything, but know this: nothing has changed, people continue to have stupid ideas, newspapers continue to laud them, and lives will be lost. Here is just one: What if everything you thought you knew about Aids was wrong? That was the title of a book by Christine Maggiore, an HIV/Aids-denialist lauded in the American media. She is now dead.
Maggiore decided that HIV does not cause Aids, and that antiretroviral drugs do not treat it. She was HIV positive, which the media loved. She declined to take ARV drugs and specifically decided not to take HIV drugs during her pregnancy, despite the strong evidence that they massively lower the risk of maternal transmission. She insisted on breastfeeding her children, even though it has been shown that this increases the risk of maternal transmission. She also refused to have her children tested for HIV. Her daughter, Eliza Jane Scovill, died three years ago. The coroner attributed the death to Aids and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. She was three years old.
Last Saturday, two days after Christmas, Maggiore died of pneumonia, aged 52. She was an extremely effective advocate. She set up successful campaigning organisations and counselled HIV-positive pregnant women on how to avoid pressure from medics to use azidothymidine (AZT) during pregnancy to prevent maternal transmission of the virus. She appeared on the cover of Mothering magazine, with a “No AZT” sign painted on her pregnant tummy.
However, as always, this is about far more than one person. Maggiore’s views on HIV were driven by the work of Peter Duesberg, a well-known Aids denier. He was unable to persuade other scientists that his views on HIV were correct, but he did very well with journalists, most notably Neville Hodgkinson, former science correspondent of the Sunday Times.
Over two years in the early 1990s the paper published a series of lengthy articles rejecting the role of HIV in causing Aids, calling the African Aids epidemic a myth. It was all a scam to make money and defend reputations, they said.
Things got so bad that Nature, probably the world’s most important academic journal, published an editorial describing the Sunday Times coverage as “seriously mistaken, and probably disastrous”.
Duesberg went on to great things, including South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous presidential advisory panel on Aids. It was here that the country’s Aids-denialist policies were set into play, with tragic consequences. One demographic modelling study estimates that if the South African government had used antiretroviral drugs for prevention and treatment at the same rate as the Western Cape, around 171,000 new HIV infections and 343,000 deaths could have been prevented between 1999 and 2007.
Aids is the opposite of anecdote: three million people died of it last year. Hundreds of thousands of lives, perhaps millions, have been lost because of a stupid idea, promoted by stupid people. To the best of my knowledge, not one has either apologised or clarified their stance. Just don’t let anyone tell you pseudoscience is harmless.