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Dissidents Ask, 'HIV Or Poverty?'

Bay Area Reporter August 31, 2000

By Liz Highleyman

Last Thursday, August 24, nearly 100 people gathered to hear Christine Maggiore and Robin Scovill present their report from South Africa, which hosted the 13th International Conference on AIDS in Durban last month. The forum was sponsored by HIV dissident groups ACT UP/San Francisco and HEAL.

Maggiore, who was profiled in the August 28 issue of Newsweek magazine, is an HIV-positive mother who does not take antiviral drugs or give them to her son. She is a proponent of the "HIV dissident" view that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that anti-HIV drugs are harmful and may actually cause the collection of symptoms and illnesses labeled AIDS. Her book "What if Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?" is widely distributed by the dissident community.

Unlike several recent local presentations on HIV and AIDS, Thursday's meeting was peaceful. Several AIDS activists were on hand to distribute materials debunking dissident views, but aside from some jeers during a brief question and answer period, no altercations ensued.

Maggiore, who attended the Durban conference as an exhibitor, said she was well received and that attendees -- especially Africans -- eagerly snapped up the nearly 500 pounds of printed materials she brought with her. During her trip, Maggiore had the opportunity to meet with such luminaries as Winnie Mandela, the former wife of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, and South African President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki generated considerable media controversy this spring when he appointed a panel of orthodox and dissident experts to examine the assumption that HIV causes AIDS. In response, some 5,000 international scientists released the Durban Declaration, which stated that scientific evidence was unequivocal in showing that the virus causes the disease.

Proponents of unorthodox views about AIDS in Africa, notably history of science professor Dr. Charles Geshekter, claim that widely disseminated statistics about HIV in Africa -- what Maggiore calls an "epidemic of estimates and projections" -- are not in accord with the number of actual AIDS cases. For example, in South Africa there are said to be 4 million HIV-positive people, yet only 12,000 confirmed AIDS cases, a ratio that diverges wildly from that seen in the U.S. Dissidents also claim that AIDS cases are often presumptively diagnosed without HIV tests, and that when HIV antibody tests are used, they can give false-positive results in people with a range of common conditions including malaria and pregnancy.

A key focus of Maggiore's talk and Scovill's documentary film was the widespread poverty in South Africa. Mbeki and others have emphasized that Africans lack the most basic healthcare infrastructure -- including clean water and proper nutrition -- and that these needs must be a higher priority than expensive anti-HIV drugs. The poverty in many developing countries has worsened in recent decades in part due to crushing debt and austerity measures imposed by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which often have the effect of further eroding already meager public health budgets. As Geshekter said in the film, Africans are dying of tuberculosis, malaria, malnutrition, dysentery, and other conditions that have the same classic symptoms as AIDS.

To a chorus of boos and a few cheers from the audience, Scovill's film portrayed Mark Wainberg of the International AIDS Society, the sponsor of the Durban conference, stating that renowned dissident Dr. Peter Duesberg was a "madman" and a "psychopath," and that those who share his views "should be thrown in jail." Duesberg was later shown discussing how AZT works by terminating newly forming DNA chains in a way that affects the host as well as the virus. Using AZT to treat HIV, he said, "is like shooting nuclear weapons at bunnies … you may kill some bunnies, but the forest doesn't look very good afterwards." The film also showed Maggiore trying to convince Nkosi Johnson, an 11-year-old AIDS treatment poster boy who spoke at the Durban conference, to stop taking his AIDS drug "cocktail."

After a two-hour presentation, little time was left for questions and answers, and moderator Ronnie Burk of ACT UP/San Francisco kept a tight rein on discussion and debate. One commentator emphasized that the forum's title "HIV or Poverty?" was a misnomer, and that AIDS was due to both. One audience member asked why people in Africa get opportunistic diseases associated with immune decline that were not seen prior to the epidemic, a question Maggiore failed to answer. Another asked why some people taking antiviral regimens seem to experience "miraculous recoveries" despite the drugs' many side effects. To this, Maggiore suggested that protease inhibitor drugs may inhibit the protease enzymes of funguses and other microorganisms that cause opportunistic infections, much as they may interfere with the protease enzymes of HIV and humans.

Overall, it was clear that Maggiore was largely preaching to the choir, and Burk got a round of cheers when he said "We don't need to hear about scientific mumbo jumbo." One audience member suggested that if she is really interested in a civil debate, Maggiore should dissociate herself from ACT UP/San Francisco, which is known for disrupting forums held to discuss orthodox ideas about HIV and AIDS. Maggiore responded that she was "not a gay man who had seen her world crumble," and that while she would not do the things they do, she also "would not take away their means of expression."

-----

HEAL holds meetings for people wishing to explore unorthodox ideas about HIV on the last Wednesday of every month at 8 p.m. at the Park Branch Public Library, 1833 Page Street in San Francisco.
Christine Maggiore can be reached toll free: (877) 92-ALIVE or www.questionaids.com.

=====

ACT UP San Francisco
1884 Market Street * San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: (415) 864-6686 * Fax: (415) 864-6687 *
www.actupsf.com

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