HIV denial: alive and well in 2014 [UPDATED]

Everything old is new again. For years on this blog, I wrote about HIV denial and the few fringe scientists and journalists who espoused it. I attracted a host of trolls, some of whom repeatedly attacked my credibility, my appearance, even showed up at my academic office. One of the most prolific of these was Henry Bauer, who posts long-debunked ideas on HIV/AIDS (and the Loch Ness Monster to boot).

That was, oh, 2007-ish and prior. In that same year Steven Novella and I co-authored an article on HIV denial for PLoS Medicine. In 2008, a leader of the denial movement, Christine Maggiore of “Alive and Well AIDS alternatives,” died of AIDS. In 2009, books were released from Seth Kalichman  (Denying AIDS)  and Michael Specter (Denialism), both further outlining the reasons why HIV denial is so, so, so incredibly flawed and dangerous. Seth still runs his blog, and HIV denial hasn’t gone away, but it’s lost some prominence in recent years–at least in the US.

For whatever reason, this week has been a hotbed of it.

First, MD/blogger Kelly Brogan had a post in support of HIV denial , specifically addressing pregnant women (currently taken down but the internet never forgets).

Now even worse, Frontiers in Public Health, an actual, peer-reviewed journal, has published a paper that is straight-out, unvarnished, HIV denial. Full stop. This journal is part of the “Frontiers in” series, that many readers will probably be familiar with. FPH claims that

Each Frontiers article is a landmark of the highest quality, thanks to genuinely collaborative interactions between authors and review editors, who include some of the world’s best academicians. Frontiers is well aware of the potential impact of published research both on future research and on society and, hence, does not support superficial review, light review or no-review publishing models. Research must be certified by peers before entering a stream of knowledge that may eventually reach the public – and shape society. Therefore, Frontiers only applies the most rigorous and unbiased reviews, established in the high standards of the Frontiers Review System. Furthermore, only the top certified research, evaluated through the democratic Frontiers Evaluation System, is disseminated to increasingly wider communities as it gradually climbs the tiers of the Frontiers Tiering System from specialized expert readership towards public understanding.

Except, no way in hell is that accurate after the publication of this manuscript: “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent,” by a professor at Texas A&M University named Patricia Goodson. Goodson’s qualifications appear to be in health education, including sexual health (and many publications related to abstinence-only education and to abortion), but nowhere do I see any publications or training relevant to epidemiology or virology.

The paper itself consists entirely of the old claims that have been debunked time and time and time and time again, using tactics we defined in our paper: quote-mining, cherry-picking evidence, moving goalposts, citing prominent deniers and denial groups, and more. There is nothing of value here, and the only real nod she gives to orthodox opinions on HIV are to cite Kalichman’s book ever-so-briefly and dismissively (characterizing it as “a harsh critique of unorthodox views and of Duesberg in particular”). 

And who is behind the curtain? Well, for one, Henry Bauer, who appears immediately in the comments of the paper, pimping his list of HIV denial resources. Goodson comments (click to embiggen):

Goodman and Bauer

So how in the world did this paper make it into a peer-reviewed journal with the stamp of approval of the Frontiers line and backing of Nature Publishing Group?  (EDITED via comments: Grace Baynes of NPG notes that Frontiers journals are editorially independent from NPG; see my response below). The two reviewers, Preeti Negandhi and Lalit Raghunath Sankhe are also apparently both members of the FPH editorial board, despite almost no academic record. Neither has experience in HIV/AIDS , but the latter appears to be the editor,  Sanjay P Zodpey‘s go-to reviewer, while the former only has one publication listed on the FPH page, co-authored with Zodpey on public health capacity development in India. No publications are listed on Sankhe’s page, but there was one I could find which may possibly be associated with this name. Other than that, zero record in PubMed.

Why were these people, who clearly have as little background in this area as Goodson does, chosen as reviewers? This is, at the best, a pathetic excuse for peer review and editing, and completely unprofessional and unacceptable. Did Zodpey, who does appear to have some background in HIV, even read the article before passing it along to two unqualified reviewers? This type of review makes a mockery of the entire system and makes us all look bad.

Even worse, papers like this are clearly dangerous. I wrote not even a week ago about the deadly distrust so many have in our medical system, and cited HIV denial as an example. South African policies regarding HIV (and the denial that the virus was behind AIDS) led to an estimated 330,000 premature deaths from AIDS, and 35,000 infants born with HIV infections that could have been prevented in that country alone.  This is what Goodson and Bauer (among others) are supporting. Frontiers and Nature, do you really want to be a part of this as well?

(Tip o’ the hat to Kenneth Witwer and Brian Foley for bringing this to my attention.)

UPDATED 9/26 The Frontiers Editorial Office has posted a Statement of Concern on their site regarding the paper:

Statement of Concern: The article “Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent” (Goodson 2014), was accepted for publication on the 7th September 2014. In its duty to publish responsibly, and in light of numerous complaints received about the paper, Frontiers has launched an investigation, the outcome of which will be made public once all adequate procedures have been completed. September 26, 2016. Frontiers Editorial Office, Lausanne, Switzerland.


Deadly distrust

Gregg Mitman’s article in the September 17th New England Journal of Medicine, “Ebola in a Stew of Fear,” is unfortunately all too prescient. Dr. Mitman highlighted “the ecology of fear” in Western Africa. Fear is present on both the part of Westerners (scared of Africa’s yellow fever, malaria, Ebola, its mere “different-ness”), and by native Africans (of whites’ history of colonization and slavery, of medical exploitation dating back well over a century). Fear of each other.

This history of fear, the cultural legacy of decades of mistrust of both Western people and their medical science, played a role in the murders of 8 people working on the Ebola outbreak in Guinea–journalists, medical officers, local administrators, and a preacher who were just trying to educate locals about the virus. The hostile crowd first threw stones at the team, and ended in their brutal deaths. The steps in-between have not been reported.

This is the extreme end of the science and medical denial continuum. We can scoff in America and attribute such horrors to the “brutal, savage Africans,” who cut their daughters and rape virgins to cure AIDS, as I’ve unfortunately already seen in some Twitter comments–some of our notions of “them” not so dissimilar from American colonists of centuries past regarding the slaves they once owned.

We can accept this scape-goating and ignore the West’s own modern-day culpability, with our fake vaccination campaigns that have left others dead in the aftermath; with our movies and popular culture depicting Africans as the West’s guinea pigs, and our shady pharmaceutical dealings that make that characterization all too believable.

No, it isn’t always a battle of Africans against Westerners. In South Africa, former President Thabo Mbeki was deceived by false claims about the relationship between HIV and AIDS that he had read on the internet, suggesting that HIV was not the cause of AIDS, and that  Western science should be distrusted in favor of traditional herbal remedies recommended by his health minister, such as garlic and beetroot. Because of his suspension of Western medical treatments, an estimated 330,000 South Africans died prematurely from HIV/AIDS between 2000 and 2005 , and at least 35,000 babies were born with HIV infections that could have been prevented.

Denialism kills. Distrust kills. Fear kills.

Here in the U.S., Natural News, a site run by the self-dubbed “Health Ranger,” Mike Adams, ran a piece this past summer suggesting that journalists and scientists who defended genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) were similar to Nazis, accelerating “heinous crimes being committed against humanity” and collaborating with an “with an anti-human regime,” and that such individuals should be named as such for future crimes:

“Just as history needed to record the names and deeds of Nazi war criminals, so too must all those collaborators who are promoting the death and destruction caused by GMOs be named for the historical record. The true extent of their collaboration with an anti-human regime will all become readily apparent once the GMO delusion collapses and mass global starvation becomes an inescapable reality.

I’m hoping someone will create a website listing all the publishers, scientists and journalists who are now Monsanto propaganda collaborators. I have no doubt such a website would be wildly popular and receive a huge influx of visitors, and it would help preserve the historical record of exactly which people contributed to the mass starvation and death which will inevitably be unleashed by GMO agriculture (which is already causing mass suicides in India and crop failures worldwide).”

Adams is similarly anti-vaccine, and currently is featuring on his website “11 horrible truths about Ebola the government doesn’t want you to know.” These “truths” include suggesting that infected individuals should avoid hospitals, and that citizens everywhere should prepare for the inevitable quarantine at gunpoint.

The worst part of Adams’ misinformation of this type is that it doesn’t stay within the borders of the U.S.–misinformation on Ebola epidemiology and quack cures like those Adams promotes are also being spread in African nations via Facebook pages and other types of social media

Denialism kills. Distrust kills. Fear kills.

Because of distrust of Western medicine, a recent article noted that parts of Africa have better vaccination rates than many wealthy neighborhoods in Los Angeles–and as a result, 10 babies died in a 2010 outbreak of whooping cough in California.

The deaths of the workers in Guinea show this fear and denial writ large; the purposeful killing of those only wanting to help their local and global neighbors in the face of a terrible epidemic. Those murdered are the latest victims of the most malignant form of distrust. They will not be the last.