Ben Goldacre, Saturday 24 October 2009, The Guardian.
A lot of strange stuff can fly in under the claim that you are “simply starting a debate”. You may remember the Aids denialist documentary House Of Numbers from 3 weeks ago. Since then, it has received many glowing outings. The London Raindance film festival explained that they were proud to show it, and a senior programmer appeared on Youtube saying they had gone through the film at 15 second intervals, finding no inaccuracies at all.
This is pretty good for a film which suggests that HIV doesn’t cause Aids, but antiretroviral drugs do, or poverty, or drug use, but HIV probably doesn’t exist, diagnostic tools don’t work, and Aids is simply a spurious basket diagnosis invented to sell antiretroviral medication for a wide range of unrelated problems, and the treatments don’t work either.
But now the film has received an even more prominent platform. Here is Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, promoting the Spectator event next Wednesday at which they will be screening this film: “Is it legitimate to discuss the strength of the link between HIV and Aids? It’s one of these hugely emotive subjects, with a fairly strong and vociferous lobby saying that any open discussion is deplorable and tantamount to Aids denialism. Whenever any debate hits this level, I get deeply suspicious.”
Of course people will have some concerns. Despite international outcry, from 2000 to 2005 South Africa implemented policies based on the belief that HIV does not cause Aids, and declined to roll out adequate antiretroviral therapy. It has been estimated in two separate studies that around 350,000 people died unnecessarily in South African during this period.
We should also remember that “teach the controversy” is a technique beloved of American creationists, and of antivaccination campaigners (with whom Fraser Nelson has also, oddly, flirted). These groups know that in our modern media, where truth is halfway between the two most extreme views, to insert doubt is to win.
But debate is also good. So what kind of debate will the Spectator be hosting? They advertise a panel of “leading medical authorities”. There are four people on this panel. One is Lord Norman Fowler. He is not a “leading medical authority”.
Charles Geshekter is a professor of African history from the University of Chicago, and is therefore also not a “leading medical authority”. He says there is no AIDS epidemic in Africa, simply poverty, and that belief in the epidemic was a product of racism and “western sexual stereotypes”. In fact he calls it “The Plague That Isn’t”, and was on President Thabo Mbeki’s notorious Aids Advisory Panel in South Africa in 2000.
Beverly Griffin is an emeritus professor at Imperial College, from the field of virology but not HIV, who is quoted by the virusmyth website as saying that HIV may not cause Aids in the 1990s. Her views may now have changed, I hope they have, I have emailed her and hope to hear back.
Lastly, Dr Joe Sonnabend is a retired american doctor who was greatly involved in the treatment of people with Aids, but was also long regarded by many in the Aids denialist community as a fellow traveller, saying that the link between HIV and AIDS was unproven. More recently he has distanced himself from this view.
I’m sure they are erudite and accomplished, but it is not clear that the Spectator have assembled “leading medical authorities” on the specific question of whether HIV causes Aids. It is also fair to say, with the exception of Norman Fowler, that all the Spectator’s panellists have disputed the mainstream consensus on Aids at one stage or another. I’m not saying that is unacceptable, or presuming their current position. I am simply saying: this is who the Spectator have chosen to put on their panel of “leading medical authorities”, and they may not reflect the overwhelming consensus – which is not a dirty word – that HIV causes Aids, and that antiretroviral medication is an imperfect but overall beneficial treatment.
And then there is the film to which their debate is pegged. We do not have time in this short column to rehash its flaws, although you can find many documented at the excellent aidstruth.org. I would however ask Fraser about one scene, which makes a very simple point. Christine Maggiore appears many times in the film, talking emotively, explaining her choice not to take Aids medication, and that this is why she is alive.
Christine Maggiore is dead, Fraser. The film tells you that but in tiny letters at the very end and it says no more. She died of pneumonia aged 52. And her daughter died of untreated Aids aged 3. Because of her beliefs about Aids, Christine Maggiore did not take medication which has been proven to reduce the risk of HIV transmission to her unborn child during pregnancy. Her daughter, Eliza Jane, was not tested for HIV during her short life. Before she died. Of Aids.
I cannot see how a film which does not tell you that – in large, bold letters, perhaps, scrolling across the screen when Maggiore is speaking to you so passionately – how a film that frames its facts in such a fashion can possibly be a helpful starting point for an informed debate. It’s not “controversial”, it’s pointlessly misleading. “Starting a debate” is fine. With this film, and with these panellists, the Spectator has framed a very odd event indeed.