The Blog

Killing With Kindness - How HIV Denialism Murders Women

I do understand that for many, the science is not easily understood, and that you may still think doubt about the origins of AIDS is still a matter for legitimate discourse. It is not. It is an entirely irresponsible thing to do, and I beg you even at this late stage to withdraw the screening of this film.

Today, Friday 25 April, on the 30th anniversary of the isolation of HIV, the School of Oriental and African Studies is screening a film by a German director that denies HIV is the cause of AIDS and that, instead, HIV treatments probably are.

They shouldn't show it.

Anne Sono, the film maker, is described as the founder of a free kindergarten and school and someone devoted to showing "how we as individuals can overcome our fears and move towards responsibility and trust." I can just see how she appealed to the SOAS Women for Women International Society. Standing up against the white coats and wicked pharma industry in soldarity with women everywhere -what young radical wouldn't be seduced by that call?

Unfortunately, the viewpoint promulgated by Anne Sono and her fellow denialists does not improve women's lives. It kills them.

Here's the letter I wrote to SOAS, explaining why they should never have allowed this film to be shown.


Dear SOAS,

I am writing to express my anger and sadness that you are screening an HIV denialist film tomorrow. Even sadder that it's apparently being screened by a women's organisation, when women have consistently received poorer access to HIV treatment, are more vulnerable to HIV infection, and are still disproportionately affected by HIV and the circumstances that increase the chances of getting it.

Factually, the origin of AIDS and the nature of the HIV virus are simply not a matter of genuine scientific debate.

There is nothing that connects people who develop AIDS - whether they are a young child in Nairobi, a gay man in London, a heroin user in St Petersburg or a sex worker in Karachi - other than this easily identifiable and easily managed, if not cured, infection. There is no other explanation for the sudden reversals in the rise in life expectancy in African countries in the 1980s and 1990s, nor for the improvements in life expectancy seen when HIV treatment became available. There is no other explanation for why the life expectancy of someone with HIV in the UK in 1995 was 40 and is now 80. There is no other explanation for the almost miraculous recovery of people at death's door who are given antiretroviral drugs. There is no other explanation for the exquisitely precise effect of the majority of HIV drugs - molecules designed to fit into the crevices of a virus that does not exist, according to denialists, or if it does, causes nothing.

Personally, HIV denialism grieves me. It grieves me because it makes people die unnecessarily. I have had HIV since 1985 and was rescued from the brink of death, with my immune system reduced to 1% of a normal person's capacity, in 1997 when I started taking HIV treatment and started recovering from the shopping-list of lethal ailments that had caused me to lose a third of my body weight. It grieves me because my partner Paul, who died in 1990 aged 29, did not live long enough to see the same benefit, along with a whole generation of friends.

It especially grieves me because I have personally known HIV denialists who have died for their beliefs - obstinately refusing the treatments that saved me as they lay wasting away. Jody Wells, Huw Christie, David Pasquarelli and the most tragic case of all (because she killed her daughter as well as herself) Christine Maggiore. I also know people who recanted their denialist beliefs and went on to live longer, such as the pioneering African activist Winstone Zulu.

Neither the scientific not the personal arguments, however, are sufficient argument for deploring that SOAS has allowed this film to be shown. As a longstanding gay and HIV activist and writer, I am a passionate defender of free speech and expression, even by people who have beliefs that are crazy or offensive.

HIV denialism has been compared to climate-change scepticism or WW2 holocaust denial - but while these two systems of belief may murder science, they don't directly kill people. Vaccine denialism is coming nearer to it, but at present if you don't vaccinate your kid they probably won't get the disease anyway, yet.

But influence a person with HIV to refuse their medication and they will die. HIV denialism kills, not figuratively, but literally, and sometimes fast. It's killing people in the UK today - a number of them African women - who are influenced by denialist or faith arguments to refuse medication. I've met some.

Even worse, influence a politician to refuse to provide HIV treatment, and the people he governs will die. In the case of South Africa, it is estimated that 300,000 people died unnecessarily when Thabo Mbeki was influenced by denialists to delay access to HIV drugs.

Unfortunately, the non-science of HIV denialism still has traction in people diagnosed with this infection or belonging to vulnerable communities. HIV is a stigmatised condition, primarily because of its association with sex, and people would rather believe conspiracy theories than feel the shame they associate with having it. And the people most likely to feel that shame? Women, especially women from conservative countries.

For this reason, providing a platform for HIV denialist views is not about letting alternative viewpoints speak, it is not about giving a voice to minorities, it is not an act of liberalism. It is an actively injurious and harmful thing to do - more akin to promulgating terrorism or to allowing space for hate speech than to the airing of other sorts of heterodox views.

I do understand that for many, the science is not easily understood, and that you may still think doubt about the origins of AIDS is still a matter for legitimate discourse. It is not. It is an entirely irresponsible thing to do, and I beg you even at this late stage to withdraw the screening of this film.

Yours sincerely,

Gus Cairns

Editor, NAM