HIV Positive Family vs Your Facts

Dear Christine,

I recently read a story in a magazine urging that people get tested for HIV. It featured a couple described as normal and healthy. Then they had a child and for the first six months of his life, he was forever getting colds and coughs. When the baby got a bad case of pneumonia, doctors gave him an a HIV test and he turned up HIV positive. In fact, they diagnosed him with AIDS since his pneumonia was so severe. After this discovery, both parents tested and were found to be positive. Their child died of AIDS four months later.

It seems to me the couple got HIV from each other and passed it on to their baby. Also, drugs canít be blamed for the child being so ill since he only started AIDS treatment after testing positive. If HIV tests are not accurate or reliable, how do you explain this situation?

I want your comments on this since my close friend recently tested HIV positive. Before I pass on your book and web site, I just want to be sure about the facts with regard to what the tests mean.

Many thanks for any help you can give,

Elaine

Dear Elaine,

Your friend is fortunate to have your support during what must be a very difficult time.

Regarding the questions inspired by the article, itís important to understand that magazine stories (and most other forms of news media) do not give us all the facts about any situation. They tend to include what supports the premise or conclusion the author or editor wishes to convey. In the case of a piece that advocates HIV testing, a good writer will chose a situation that evokes our compassion and speaks to our fears, and use the most dramatic pieces of information s/he can find, possibly while omitting facts that may temper our sympathy or contradict the storyline.

Rarely do journalists objectively investigate and let the facts fall where they may. Most approach assignments with a certain take on the subject and fill in the necessary details to produce the predetermined outcome.

Having been the subject of several television news features and magazine articles, I have experienced first hand how reality is cut and shaped to fit story angles. The most egregious violation of journalist integrity occurred with Newsweek, a publication most would regard as serious and authoritative. Their reporter actually fabricated outrageous statements and attributed them to me in order to create a sensational headline for the story. After several rounds of communication with my attorney, the reporter reluctantly acknowledged having no source or citation for my supposed remarks.

In many cases, honest journalists do not ask or answer questions that reveal all the facts of a topic. This is especially true with AIDS reports which typically lack any skepticism or objectivity.

To cite just one example, several magazines ran stories about a doctor who claimed he became HIV positive as a result of cutting his thumb during an autopsy on an AIDS victim. The doctor was alone when this accident allegedly occurred so no one could verify that the incident. While his story may be true, it is highly unlikely. US Centers for Disease Control data indicate that ďHIV transmissionĒ attributed to medical settings is exceedingly rareóa health professional has a much better chance of being struck by lightening while performing their duties. Given the unlikely odds for this tragic tale, the lack of critical questions and facts was remarkable. None of the articles told us if the doctor had ever taken a test prior to the accident and what those results were, or if he had other risk factors for testing HIV positive. They did not mention his sexual identity and in fact, very awkwardly avoided any reference to personal relationships. Instead, he was described as a hero for his friendship with an older black woman who had also tested positive, he made all the talk shows, and his story became a top selling book.

An investigative reporter or critical reader couldnít help but to wonder about this story. Could it be that this doctor tested positive previous to the autopsy and "had an accident" to provide a heroic explanation for his test result? And before you think Iím picking on the poor man, think about this: the ABC News program 20/20 required me to provide copies of all my medical records and test results; contact information for my previous doctors, current doctor and our pediatrician; personal income tax returns and business records; my sonís birth certificate; and finally, to take an HIV antibody test on camera. All this before bringing me to New York to interview with Connie Chung who asked no less than three times whether I had been an IV drug user. Moreover, they wanted photographs and video footage that would provide visual proof for certain aspects of my life. Other journalists have run my credit report, looked up the deed to my house, checked on my past affiliations with AIDS organizations, conducted in depth interviews with my friends, family, neighbors, and business associates and even asked for a death certificate to prove my former boyfriend died in an accident and not from AIDS.

In the case of the article you readóat least from what you tell meóthere is a lot of compelling drama but not a lot of facts. For example, we know nothing about the lives of the parents prior to the point at which the story begins. Using the standards of 20/20, would need information on their health and medical histories including potential risk factors for testing positive, and a pathologistís report on the baby. Unfortunately, few journalists would scrutinize such a sad story or even know what questions might accurately reveal the facts.

From the brief summary youíve given me, itís hard to analyze the article but several issues come to mind. It is the type of pneumonia, not the severity, that causes someone to be labeled an AIDS case. What type of pneumonia did this child have and how was it diagnosed? Millions of HIV negative children suffer with chronic colds and coughs and various forms of pneumonia that can be life-threatening. To give one publicized example of an HIV negative infant with severe pneumonia, Tia Leoni and David Duchovny's baby was hospitalized with a "near fatal bout of pneumonia" a few months after birth.

HIV negative babies delivered prematurely or by cesarean section (especially pre-term), those with low birth weights, ones exposed to drugs in-utero or whose mothers were malnourished during pregnancy are often born with lung problems that may be chronic and life-threatening. How was the baby born? Did the mother smoke or use drugs during pregnancy? Was the baby breastfed? The incidence of respiratory infections and lung disease and other illness is many times higher among children who are not breastfed. Depending on how and where a baby lives, formula fed infants can experience a six-fold greater chance of dying than their breastfed counterparts.

Returning to the chronic colds mentioned in the article, a recent report on childhood illnesses noted that children in daycare average one cold a month. Was the baby in daycare? Many working parents place infants in daycare at four or six weeks of age. How were the babies colds treated? The more antibiotics given, the greater the chances for ill health.

After the HIV positive diagnosis, was the baby placed on AIDS drugs? Most likely this would be the case and if so, what drugs and in what dosages? A recent news report here in Los Angeles recounted the story of a baby diagnosed with pneumonia assumed to be AIDS and given a dangerously toxic antibiotic at five times the dose his weight allowed. That babyís death was written off to AIDS. AIDS drugs or other pharmaceuticals might also be responsible for the death of the child in the article. We canít know without all the facts. What appears in print may not be the whole story.

Take Tia Emerson, a child with a similar and well publicized story that also appeared at first glance to support the HIV hypothesis. Like the child in your article, Tia had chronic colds that frequently turned to pneumonia. When she and her parents tested HIV positive, Tiaís problems were attributed to AIDS. While both parents could be described as normal and healthy like those in your article, less than a year later, Tia died. In this case, however, we have other facts that help us understand what happened.

Prior to testing positive, Tia's frequent colds and repeated pneumonias were considered normal since she had severe asthma and bacteria would easily colonize in her lungs. Also, both parents smoked. After testing positive, however, her pneumonia was reclassified as AIDS and Tia was given an aggressive regimen of AZT and other drugs that caused loss of appetite, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, muscle pain, weight loss and more severe bouts of pneumonia. After 11 months on the drug treatments, she died. Both her parents remain well, and her mother takes no AIDS medications.

Further, Tiaís brother also tested positive when she did but interestingly did not suffer from pneumonia or have other health problems until he began taking AIDS drugs. He very quickly developed the same symptoms as his sisteróloss of appetite, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, severe muscle pain, wasting, and pneumonia. In his case, the mother stopped the drugs and the boyís symptoms subsided.

I hope this response has helped explain how things may not be what they seem in a magazine article or even in the news.

With best wishes to you and your friend,

Christine

HIV Antibody Test Certificate of Accuracy

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References

to Questioning The Test FAQ's - Can Positives Re-Test HIV Negative?

to T Cells and Viral Load