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  health > AIDS > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

AIDS heresies: From maverick science to conspiracy theories

September 15, 1999
Web posted at: 1:26 PM EDT (1726 GMT)

In this story:

Does drug use and AZT causes AIDS?

AIDS in Africa

Biological warfare

Disturbing survey results


By Hacsi Horvath

You can become infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in two main ways:
1. Having sexual intercourse -- vaginal, anal, or perhaps oral -- with an infected person.
2. Sharing needles or syringes with an infected person.
Also, women infected with HIV can pass the virus to their babies during pregnancy or during birth. In some cases they can also pass it on when breast-feeding. Some people have been infected by receiving blood transfusions, especially during the period before 1985, when careful screening and laboratory testing of the blood supply began. You cannot be infected by giving blood at a blood bank.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • AIDS (auto immune deficiency syndrome) is caused by the virus called the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.
  • If HIV enters your body, you may become infected with HIV. A blood test can detect HIV antibodies if you are infected. Antibodies are substances your body makes to fight an infection.
  • A person who is infected can infect others, even if no symptoms are present. You cannot tell by looking at someone whether he or she is infected with HIV. An infected person can appear completely healthy.
  • Even when no symptoms are visible, however, anyone infected with HIV should be under a doctor's care.
  • People infected with HIV can develop many health problems. These can include extreme weight loss, severe pneumonia, forms of cancer and damage to the nervous system. These illnesses signal the onset of AIDS. In some people, these illnesses may develop within a year or two. Others may stay healthy for as long as 10 or more years before symptoms appear. Early medical treatment may prolong a person's life.
  • Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    (WebMD) -- Although nearly all scientists believe that AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a small but vocal minority insists that there is no proof of this. Others say that they are indeed linked, but were deliberately created as a genocidal or biological warfare experiment. Evidence against these alternative theories is overwhelming, but because HIV and AIDS are still not fully understood, some people still believe them. How plausible is the renegade research? Here are the most prevalent of these theories and the explanations behind them.

    Does drug use and AZT causes AIDS?

    Chief among the dissenters is University of California at Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg, who says that AIDS is caused not by HIV, which he deems a harmless "passenger virus," but by several other factors, including recreational drug use and zidovudine (AZT), a medication used to treat HIV infection.

    Duesberg has published his AIDS research in numerous scientific journals over the past decade. Much of this research can also be found on his personal Web site. According to an article he wrote for Genetica in 1995, Duesberg claims that the long-term use of such drugs as cocaine, heroin, LSD and nitrite inhalants -- not unsafe sex with HIV-infected partners -- was initially responsible for the spread of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. He believes that the introduction of AZT in 1987 made matters worse because the medication further weakened the immune systems of people who were diagnosed with AIDS-related diseases such as Kaposi's sarcoma and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.

    AIDS in Africa

    In addition, Duesberg says that AIDS in Africa is caused by parasites, malnutrition and poor sanitation. To explain the fact that babies worldwide are born with AIDS, Duesberg asserts that the babies' mothers must have been long-term drug abusers. Such hypotheses have not endeared him to mainstream science, but Duesberg's views have still won support, even from within the scientific community -- Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis has publicly supported Duesberg's research.

    According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, however, such theories as Duesberg's "have been repeatedly contradicted" by standard scientific research. "Compelling evidence" against these skeptical arguments has been gathered many times, in rigorous clinical studies.

    Aaron Plant, an associate producer with the University of California at San Francisco's AIDS resource center, HIV InSite, warns that the effect of believing such theories would be a worsening of the AIDS epidemic. "Theories such as these have important public health ramifications. If people believe that HIV is not dangerous and AIDS is not contagious, they may abandon safer sex and feel free to share needles."

    Biological warfare

    But Duesberg's is not the only assertion about HIV and AIDS that horrifies most scientists. In an article on the HIV InSite web site, Plant discusses the case of an East German immunologist named Jacob Segal, who reported to the Moscow News in 1987 his theory that HIV was developed in U.S. Army biological warfare experiments at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

    This theory became widespread, as did the theory of a Los Angeles physician named Robert Strecker, who claimed that the virus was developed by the U.S. government in the 1970s and administered to target populations -- gay men and Africans -- through vaccines for hepatitis B and smallpox.

    This accusation is absurd, says Caree VanderLinden, a spokeswoman for USAMRIID. "The Army hasn't done offensive biological warfare research since 1969 -- the focus is on defense in the event of biological warfare. USAMRIID doesn't do offensive work, and never has." (USAMRIID was commissioned in 1971, and conducts research to develop strategies, procedures and training programs for medical defense against biological warfare threats and infectious diseases.)

    Some influential leaders, such as the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan, have also spread the word that HIV and AIDS were created as part of a government plan to kill millions of black people. He cites information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that says HIV prevalence is higher in blacks in the United States than in other racial or ethnic groups.

    However, according to a recent article in the scientific journal Nature, people may have been dying of AIDS in Africa for centuries. University of Alabama researcher Feng Gao and colleagues from other institutions determined that chimpanzees often host a simian immunodeficiency virus that is very similar to HIV and that doesn't manifest with any overt illness in the apes. The widespread West African practice of eating chimpanzee meat may lead to a cross-species transmission of the virus, which has a disastrous effect on human health, and which has spread around the world over the past few decades.

    Disturbing survey results

    Despite all this evidence against these and the many other unorthodox theories, some groups of people tend to believe them. Plant cites a 1995 survey conducted by the Miami Herald, which found that over a third of African Americans believed that HIV was created as a genocidal agent against blacks and that another third were unsure whether this were true or not. "Although many would dismiss such theories as ludicrous," he says, "they are widespread."

    Michelle, a 47-year-old African American office manager living in Chicago, is one of those who believes that AIDS may have been created to destroy black people. "This is a racist society. You have to wonder about this government," she says. "They deny everything, like the bombing of Laos, Iran-Contra, and then years later the truth comes out. I wouldn't put it past them (to create AIDS)."

    Plant notes that because the AIDS epidemic arose suddenly and because AIDS affects some groups more than others, "legends and rumors about the disease provide some outlet for the anxiety people have about the disease."

    Copyright 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Sexually Transmitted Diseases

    HIV InSite
    NIAID Division of AIDS Home Page
    Centers for Disease Control: HIV/AIDS Fact Sheets
    Infectious AIDS: Have We Been Misled?
    U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)
    Miami Herald
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