Tom Bethell on AIDS–the breakdown

Chris has been excoriating Tom Bethell (author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science”) over on The Intersection and elsewhere (see, for example, here, here, and several posts here). However, since he’s not yet done a takedown on Bethell’s chaper on AIDS (titled “African AIDS: a Political Epidemic”), he suggested I have a go at it. Man, I knew the book would be bad, but it reaches a whole new level of terrible.

Bethell’s central thesis will be familiar to anyone who’s read the anti-HIV arguments by Peter Duesberg and others. As the chapter title suggests, Bethell claims that AIDS in Africa is a made-up epidemic; AIDS is really due to simple malnutrition and dirty water supplies, rather than a virus. Government officials, scientists, and journalists are either too brainwashed or too scared to speak against the “AIDS orthodoxy.” The evil liberals aren’t concerned about AIDS because the real concern of the left, according to Bethell, is overpopulation in Africa (and hence the emphasis on condom use to prevent AIDS). Public health officials aren’t actually concerned about disease in Africa–just overpopulation. Little did I know.

However, Bethell’s story is long on emotion and hyperbole, and short on facts. His references read like a report I wrote in my 9th grade English class: newspapers, a few books, magazines (heavy-hitters like Rolling Stone and SPIN), and a grand total of 2 references from science journals. Really, he should leave off the “Politically” portion of the title–the Incorrect Guide to Science is much more apt.

Okay, okay. Enough snark. (C’mon, reading this was 20 minutes of my life I’ll never get back–I think I’m entitled to some seething). So, on to address Bethell’s claims.

The “invention” of the AIDS epidemic in Africa

First, his suggestion that HIV was “invented.” Bethell claims that, following a 1985 meeting in the Central African Republic, “overnight there were millions of Africans who had AIDS,” and that HIV was not required for this diagnosis. Well, kind of. As Bethell notes but then subsequently ignores, well-equipped laboratories in Africa are few and far between. That was the whole point of the 1985 meeting: to try and figure out a clinical spectrum of AIDS that could be used to diagnose patients when viral confirmatory tests were lacking. By both necessity and practicality, then, the clinical definition did not include a positive HIV test–what use would that be when there was no clinical laboratory to carry out the testing, and no money to pay for it? Doctors basing their diagnosis on symptoms rather than a positive identification of a particular pathogen is nothing new, and it happens here in the U.S. every day as well. But as you’ll see, Bethell (and other AIDS-deniers) hold that illness to a much more rigorous standard than they do the rest of infectious disease agents.
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