Pseudoscientific beliefs can be dangerous when they form the basis of government policy

In my last column, I mentioned that conspiracy thinker Phillip Day travels the world (he again toured New Zealand late last year) with his message that there is no Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) is not sexually transmitted and that the “highly poisonous Aids medications” are part of a “calculated and inhumane population control agenda which has been sanctioned at the highest political levels.”

So absurd are these claims that readers may doubt whether people such as Day attract much of a following. Why should Skeptics bother to speak up? Sadly, misinformation can be deadly to entire populations when policy makers adopt it. A shocking example is the case of Aids in the Republic of South Africa.

In 1982 the first cases of HIV were diagnosed in South Africa. The government was very slow to respond to the growing crisis. By 1998, when 50% of adult medical admissions to hospital in Gauteng province were Aids related, there was still no national treatment plan, public education about Aids was almost nonexistent, and superstitions were widespread. When health worker Gugu Dlamini made her HIV status public on World Aids day, she was stoned to death by a mob that included her neighbours.

The reason for the government’s slow response became clear: ignorance among the leadership of the ruling African National Congress. The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in 1999, shocked the world health community when he said Aids is caused by poverty, not by HIV. By 2000, 10% of South Africans were HIV positive, but in May of that year he appointed a panel and charged them with solving the country’s Aids problems. One of the panel members chosen by Mbeki was American scientific outcast Peter Duesberg, who says Aids is caused by anti-Aids drugs, such as AZT, but not by HIV! Mbeki ruled out providing AZT to HIV positive pregnant women, claiming the drug did more harm than good. In fact, the drug has been proven effective in drastically cutting the transmission of the deadly virus to the baby in childbirth. Thousands of HIV positive babies continued to be born every month. Duesberg said he doubted South Africa was experiencing an Aids epidemic, and the panel debated whether Aids is spread by sex or not. Mbeki thus wasted precious time and resources. In July 2000, about 5000 doctors and scientists took the extraordinary step of releasing The Durban Declaration as a rebuke to Mbeki. The document said the link between HIV and Aids is “clear-cut, exhaustive and unambiguous.” South Africa’s doctors appealed for an end to the debate which they said was confusing people who should be fighting Aids, which was spreading faster in South Africa than anywhere else on Earth.

Mbeki continued to downplay the threat of Aids. His government continued to ban doctors from providing antiretroviral drugs to HIV infected women, thus ensuring that the disease was passed on to thousands more babies. The cheap or free drugs that pharmaceutical companies had been offering for five years were not accepted.

Indeed, the Ministry of Health at great expense distributed a pamphlet justifying this deadly nonsense. In 2001, Mbeki again refused to link HIV with Aids, even though he agreed “that’s what the scientists say.”

Progress slowly came. President Mbeki found himself increasingly isolated as members of his cabinet and government supporters stated that they accepted the link between HIV and Aids. He also came under fierce international criticism from scientists and medical experts for his ignorance and lack of action.

In November 2003, the government reversed its position on the antiretroviral drugs and planned to quadruple its spending on HIV/Aids. President Mbeki, however, continues to lash out at efforts to provide scientific treatment. Phillip Day praises Mbeki’s bizarre beliefs.

The World Health Organisation says Aids is the biggest cause of death in South Africa, where it affects nearly six million people, more than in any other country. About one million people died in South Africa last year from Aids.

No society in history has had to deal with an epidemic like this. There is no containing an epidemic that has already infected 30% of adults in Durban. By 2010, life spans will probably be reduced in South Africa from about 70 years (in the absence of Aids) to about 36. Millions of deaths from Aids that have occurred in South Africa and millions that will happen were avoidable. When leaders fall for crank ideas, the results can be massively tragic.
Dr Raymond Richards is a Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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