Why Question AIDS?

Dear Christine:

I find the idea of questioning AIDS disturbing. What exactly is the point? Are you suggesting AIDS doesn't exist? I was living in San Francisco when this whole thing began and I saw many of my friends die. I find your position insulting. Do you think you know more than scientists? In my opinion you contribute nothing of value and are actually putting lives at risk.

Ken Olsen

Dear Ken,

I'm sorry for your losses, but anger and shutting off dialogue may not be the best way to deal with pain. A mind is a terrible thing to close! Perhaps I can pry yours open with a little information, and maybe even inspire you to think differently about AIDS...

The point of questioning is to make discoveries and solve problems. Questioning is a fundamental tool used throughout history to arrive at understanding and is an essential ingredient of progress in any honest endeavor.

Science is all about questioning. Researchers can't find answers without first asking questions. And their ability to question should not be restricted by politics, religion, social trends, peer pressure, popular beliefs, or profit margins.

Unfortunately, exploration into the cases of immune deficiency that began appearing among gay men in major urban areas quickly became restricted by influences that had nothing to do with honest science. Potential non-contagious causes of immune dysfunction were dismissed without proper investigation in favor of the notion of a viral cause. The dismissing was done primarily by virologists and infectious disease specialists who, for reasons that had more to do with career niche than correct investigative protocol, preferred to attribute what would later be called AIDS to an infectious, viral agent. Most of these guys had spent 20 years of their careers and billions of our tax dollars trying to find a viral, sexually transmitted cause for human cancers.

One particularly single-minded scientist from among their ranks, Dr. Robert Gallo, had been devoting his time to scouring the world for evidence of HTLV, a retrovirus he had isolated from leukemia cells growing in his lab at the National Institutes of Health. He believed that HTLV would somehow cause leukemia if he could only manage to locate it outside his lab.

Gallo finally found a group of people on the Japanese island of Kyushu who tested positive for HTLV. But he found HTLV in people with and without leukemia, that it coexisted peacefully in cells, that there was so little virus that it was practically impossible to isolate, and that only 1% of Kyushuians (?!) infected with HTLV ever developed leukemia. Gallo, however, remained undaunted by obvious inconsistencies that would have sent any ordinary scientist packing. A creative problem solver, he redefined leukemia, tested people for antibodies rather than the virus itself, and endowed HTLV with a latency period of 55 years. And while most scientists snickered at Gallo's great discovery, medical textbooks dutifully reported (and continue to document) HTLV as a cause of leukemia, and the Red Cross actually tests for it in all blood donations.

Fresh from this supposedly successful fight against "sexually contagious Japanese island leukemia," Gallo, along with his fellow cancer virologists, set their sights on finding a sexually transmitted AIDS virus.

They began by ignoring the fact that AIDS occurred among a particular subset of gay men, those with a history of repeated infections with everything from amoebas and parasites to hepatitis, syphilis, gonorrhea, and more; those who used immune suppressing antibiotics habitually for years, those who ingested lots of amyl nitrite, methamphetamines  and other chemicals known to cause immune collapse; those who didn't spend much time eating or sleeping---in other words people decidedly not "otherwise healthy." Rather than thoroughly exploring the effects of this lifestyle on the immune system, they persisted with the search for a virus.

(Before anyone gets upset about the word "lifestyle," its use is common in epidemiology, has nothing to do with right-wing Christians and is about as mean-spirited as noting that the lifestyle of asbestos workers is a cause of cancer.)

Anyway, Gallo decided to jump into the front seat of the AIDS virus bandwagon in 1984 by hijacking the bandwagon. He purloined retroviral particles isolated by French cancer virologist Luc Montagnier and named them HTLV-III after his famous luekemia virus. He then circumvented the scrutiny of the scientific community by calling a press conference to announce his "discovery." Ethical scientific protocol requires a researcher to publish claims in a peer-reviewed journal before presenting tentative findings to a largely uninformed and frighteningly uncritical media.

Instead, on April 23, Gallo stood next to that lady with the real bad hair, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler, as she officially declared HTLV-III "the probable cause of AIDS." Though Gallo had not yet published his alleged proof for his hypothesis, by April 24 the New York Times was calling Gallo's HTLV-III "the AIDS virus," and all research into other probable causes of AIDS came to an abrupt halt. Later that same day, Gallo filed a patent for what is now known as "the AIDS test."

When documentation of Gallo's AIDS virus hypothesis finally appeared in a scientific journal, his paper proved only that his claims were not supported by factual evidence. HTLV-III virus had not been found in all of Gallo's AIDS patients, while indirect evidence of the virus in the form of antibodies (normally a sign of immunity to a viral infection) was found in less than half.

Fast forward through Montagnier squealing on Gallo for swiping his virus and the patent profits, an international incident that inspired a congressional investigation of Gallo's original claims, the adoption of the MTV-friendly name "HIV," billions of research dollars invested in the single-sexual cause hypothesis of HIV, the birth of 93,000 AIDS organizations, red ribbons on every celebrity chest, to the development of an unparalleled social-political-medical movement that will not tolerate critical scientific examination.

Besides its sordid history, there are many reasons to question 15 years of strict adherence to Gallos' HIV hypothesis: As of this date, there is still no scientific evidence to show how HIV can cause AIDS. The July 2003 issue of Nature Medicine says as much in a 20 year retrospective on AIDS science: Scientists are still working with educated guesses as how HIV might cause AIDS.

There are still no cases of AIDS in the medical literature where HIV is proved to be the only risk factor. Unvalidated antibody tests (unconfirmed by virus isolation) are still used to diagnose infection, even though viral antibodies (in the absence of virus) are evidence of immunity. The tests are still non-specific and non-standardized, and none has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for the specific purpose of diagnosing actual infection with HIV.

HIV in the US hasn't increased. Government officials still use an estimate for the number of Americans that are allegedly positive that's been dragged out every year since 1996--and which was downgraded from previously overestimated estimates.

Drug cocktails and chemotherapies like AZT that supposedly eradicate HIV have failed to generate documented evidence (in the form of long-term, controlled studies published in the medical literature) for claims that they improve clinical health or prolong life expectancy. And since 1986, no AIDS drug has ever been tested in a true placebo control trial, that is, its efficacy tested by comparing results in two groups of HIV positives, one taking the drug and one taking an inert substance known as a placebo.

There are also many reasons to question our emphasis---emotional, social and fiscal---on AIDS, among them the fact that AIDS has never reached the predicted epidemic proportions. More Americans die each year from smoking cigarettes than have ever died of AIDS. Three times as many die of heart disease annually than have ever died of AIDS. Two times as many people worldwide die each year of poverty-induced diarrhea than have ever died of AIDS. What color ribbon should we wear for that?

As long as AIDS remains an unsolved problem full of inconsistencies and anomalies, unexplained by HIV and unresolved by expensive pharmaceuticals that cause the very symptoms they are supposed to alleviate (plus a few extras like pancreatitis, liver failure, kidney failure, dangerously high cholesterol, diabetes, bone death, and buffalo humps), we must keep asking questions, even uncomfortable ones. There's no other way to learn and progress.

Are you still awake?!




to Rethinking AIDS FAQ: Is AIDS A Conspiracy Theory?
to A Closer Look & HIV