Last November, The McGill Daily published a feature article by Stephanie Law entitled “In Denial” about HIV and AIDS that was in response to a cover story I’d written for Maisonneuve. Law’s article zealously reflected the medical establishment line that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS while attacking my article, which suggested there might be other causes, namely syphilis.
To those who might not follow the details of the AIDS issue, you would be unaware of the contentious debate that’s been roiling ever since 1984 when HIV was announced as the “probable” cause of the epidemic, a debate about the potency of this particular retrovirus. Does HIV really devastate people’s immune systems, or is it merely an indicator that your health is in big trouble? This debate, which has risen and subsided over the years, now resembles the Israeli-Palestinian feud: no one cares about facts anymore and both sides merely resort to name-calling.
Although, to be fair, most of the name-calling emanates from the HIV=AIDS camp. They call critics “denialists”, often comparing them to Holocaust deniers, or “the lunatic fringe” who support “pseudo-scientific” notions. One angry writer wrote in response to my story that people like me deserve to die of AIDS. HIV proponents gloat over the deaths of HIV-positive people who’ve been critical of the HIV hypothesis – and, in fact, have a webpage entitled “AIDSTruth.org” devoted to trashing skeptics.
Law’s article was very much in this vein – she said my article contained “pseudo-scientific” arguments that are easily deconstructed, and asked whether it was irresponsible to publish such an article that might mislead so many people. Her article was remarkable in how thoroughly it mischaracterized what I’d actually written. I never denied the existence of HIV or that it might be a cause of AIDS or that people shouldn’t seek treatment and practice safe sex.
In many respects, however, Law’s article is very much in keeping with the medical establishment’s reflexive reaction to anyone who challenges its deeply-held beliefs. After all, the real thrust of her article was that A) only a fool would question the medical scientific community consensus and B) drug treatments work.
This worldview stands in stark contrast to not only many peoples’ own experiences with Western medicine, but with documented evidence. For starters, it’s best to look at the medical scientific community as if it were a religious order, similar to the cardinals who run the Catholic Church. Luc Montagnier, who led the group of French scientists at the Institut Pasteur that first discovered HIV in 1983 and won the Nobel Prize last year for this achievement, spoke of this religiosity in a taped interview he gave to fifth estate producer Kit Melamed five years ago. “There are fashions or beliefs which are considered dogmas like in a religion (in the medical science world),” said Montagnier. “And you have to believe in it. And if you don’t, you are not executed, you are not burnt now, but you are put away out of the field.”
Dr. Peter Duesberg, an esteemed scientist at UCLA Berkeley, one of the world’s leading experts on retroviruses, has felt the crushing impact of this religious order after he published a critique of HIV in 1987: he’s become the favorite whipping boy of the HIV=AIDS establishment ever since, suffering professional isolation, loss of funding and constant denigration.
It’s a phenomenon that goes beyond the AIDS issue. David Healy is a Wales-based academic, psychiatrist and critic of the family of anti-depressant drugs called SSRIs (like Paxil, Zoloft and Prozac). In 2000, he was hired to head a research clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. Just before he was to move from Wales to Canada, he was told the centre had changed its mind and withdrawn the job offer. Why? Healy’s distaste for SSRIs had upset Charles Nemeroff, the then chief of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, who told CAMH to rescind the job offer.
Nemeroff is a paid consultant and flack for the drug industry, in particular firms like GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly, Astra-Zeneca, Forest Laboratories, Janssen and Quintiles. He is also a powerful and ruthless man in the psychiatric field. In 2008, a US Congressional investigation found that Nemeroff had lied to his bosses at Emory: he’d pocketed (US) $2.8-million in consulting arrangements with anti-depressant drug makers from 2000 to 2007, failing to report at least (US) $1.2-million of that income in violation of federal research rules. Records show that Dr. Nemeroff played a role in a Glaxo program that was established to aggressively promote the British company's top-selling antidepressant, Paxil.
Healy not only lost the CAMH post, he’s been constantly harassed ever since, which included the British government investigating him over his taxes. Nevertheless, Healy’s criticisms of SSRIs are now turning out to be well-founded: two recently published peer-reviewed studies, one coming from the University of Hull in the UK, and the other from the University of Pennsylvania (and published in January in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association), reveal that SSRIs don’t work any better than sugar pills (placebos) for the majority of patients prescribed them. Meanwhile, court cases over SSRIs have unearthed evidence that the anti-depressants are addictive, cause birth defects, suicides, rage, terrible depressions, and can alter your sex life and personality.
What is the track record of the medical scientific community that Law holds in such high esteem? In 2000, JAMA published a study by Dr. Barbara Starfield, an esteemed professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in which she estimated that 225,000 deaths are caused by the American health-care system every year due to unnecessary surgeries, infections caught in hospitals and pharmaceuticals. And that’s likely a low estimate: the real number could be as high as 284,000 deaths, says Starfield. This figure suggests that physicians and the vaunted US health care system are the third-leading cause of death in America – only after heart disease and cancer – or about 9.3% of all fatalities. Of these deaths, 106,000 were due to people taking properly prescribed pharmaceuticals - killing more people than diabetes and pneumonia.
In fact, every year, the American watchdog group Public Citizen publishes a list of nearly 200 popular prescription drugs as part of a "Do Not Use" group – drugs considered dangerous to your health. They cite, for example, 62 drugs that can cause eye disease. In recent years, drugs like Propulsid, Rezulin, Redux, Duract, Baycol, Zelnorm have been taken off the market because of their terrible side effects – including killing patients. Almost 9.6% of older Americans experience negative side effects from their medications every year, with more than two millions sent to hospitals or seriously injured due to side effects.
Marcia Angell, a senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School and the former editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), wrote a 2005 book entitled The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It. From her front-row seat of observing the (US) $200-billion global drug business, Angell wrote: “Over the past two decades the pharmaceutical industry has moved very far from its original high purpose of discovering and producing useful new drugs. Now primarily a marketing machine to sell drugs of dubious benefit, this industry uses its wealth and power to co-opt every institution that might stand in its way, including the US Congress, the FDA, academic medical centers, and the medical profession itself. (Most of its marketing efforts are focused on influencing doctors, since they must write the prescriptions).”
Which returns us to the subject of AIDS and HIV. Ultimately, the debate that began in the early ‘80s is whether HIV is the cause, the sole cause or not the cause of AIDS at all. The tenor of Law’s article, and the physicians she quoted, was that there is no debate – HIV is the cause and only cause. And it’s irresponsible to suggest otherwise.
This is a mind-boggling conclusion to reach about a pandemic where A) No cure has been found B) No vaccine has been developed C) Scientists don’t actually understand how HIV causes AIDS and D) Scientists have never been able to reliably duplicate the same syndrome by exposing animals to HIV. Therefore, refusing to debate AIDS and HIV must rank as the height of sheer stupidity.
Moreover, it’s not a view embraced by the man who actually found HIV, Luc Montagnier. Now, let’s be clear: Montagnier maintains that without HIV there would be no AIDS epidemic and he believes this retrovirus is the main cause of AIDS. But in many interviews and presentations over the years, he’s clearly taken a different line from the medical establishment. For example, at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS in 1990 in San Francisco, Montagnier said that he didn’t believe HIV was acting alone – that the virus needed a co-factor, such as microplasma.
In his 2004 interview with CBC producer Kit Melamed, which I have a copy of (and can be read here), he admitted “in terms of basic knowledge of AIDS there are still many things to know, to learn for which we don’t know very much”. Montagnier said it was a complicated virus, and a cunning disease. He said the treatments they use today “are not the cure. They are helping people a lot, they diminish the replication, but there us still part of the virus which resists.”
Melamed then asked Montagnier: Is it possible there is something else other than HIV in play?
MONTAGNIER: Yes, it is something also I consider… I raised the idea that HIV is helped by some microbiological factors. We have some laboratory proof of this. It is more difficult to prove this in the case of the patients. But it is quite possible that the HIV epidemic has been helped by some other infectious factors.
MELAMED: What, like some venereal diseases?
MONTAGNIER: Microbes, bacterial infections.
MELAMED: Bacterial infections that could not be VD?
MONTAGNIER: Well yes, it could be some venereal disease as well. We know that some infections help the virus transmission. But we are not only talking about HIV transmission but the disease itself. Your question was whether the disease itself is caused by HIV plus something else. It’s quite possible.
MELAMED: How long ago did you think there was something else?
MONTAGNIER: In the laboratory it was easy to show that there was another factor killing the cells. They are called microplasma, small bacteria. These have been published.
MELAMED: So who is now going after that, looking for mysterious possible cause?
MONTAGNIER: Well, it is not a very popular idea because once people saw the protease therapy they thought the problem was going to be solved. But now they are thinking differently and more people may come to that idea that I have been promoting for 10 years.
MELAMED: You say not popular, why wouldn’t it be? You would think everyone and the drug companies would be going after it.
MONTAGNIER: No, because there is a very old concept that started with Pasteur himself which is to say one disease, one infectious agent. So mentally speaking two agents is difficult for people to realize. Scientists are open to new ideas from time to time but not always. Because when they have found something they want to concentrate on that and keep it on that level. And that has happened with AIDS…
Montagnier has said other interesting things about HIV and AIDS elsewhere. In Brent Leung’s 2009 documentary, House of Numbers, which explores the HIV=AIDS debate, he taped Montagnier saying the following (you can watch the youtube clip here:)
MONTAGNIER: We can be exposed to HIV many times without being chronically infected. Our immune system will get rid of the virus within a few weeks, if you have a good immune system…
LEUNG: So if you have a good immune system then your body can naturally get rid of HIV?
LEUNG: If you take a poor African whose been infected and you build up their immune system, is it possible for them to naturally get rid of it?
MONTAGNIER: I would think so.
So, basically, the scientist who found HIV believes A) there is evidence there’s more going on with AIDS than just HIV B) nobody is looking for other possible causes and it’s an unpopular idea within medical science community and C) you can be infected with HIV and your immune system can get rid of it naturally, as long as your immune system is in good condition.
None of these are notions are widely known within the public, or even the medical community. Which is the main reason I wrote my article for Maisonneuve. John Scythes, a Toronto bookshop owner and medical autodidact, has argued that syphilis might be that other mysterious factor. And given the epidemic rates of syphilis in the gay population in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and its remarkable similarities to causing AIDS-like symptoms and illnesses, Scythes is clearly not chasing bizarre notions. Over the years, many esteemed scientists have concluded Scythes’ explorations of the relationship between syphilis and AIDS held merit, including Montagnier himself, Noel Rose, the director for the Center for Autoimmune Disease Research at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Anton Luger, one the world’s leading experts on syphilis at the University of Vienna, Hungary’s top expert on syphilis, Istvan Horvath, and Bruno Schmidt, Laboratory Chief at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Dermato-venerological Sero-diagnosis in Vienna, among others. And Scythes has co-authored numerous scientific papers on the subject for medical journals and given speeches at medical conferences.
In Law’s article, she quotes Jason Szabo, a doctor at Montreal General Hospital, as saying that syphilis cannot be involved in AIDS because while syphilis rates are rising, AIDS deaths are declining. This is a remarkably misinformed statement for a doctor to make, if Szabo was quoted accurately, as he clearly has no understanding of the pathology of syphilis. If he’d bothered to read either my article or the medical literature, he would have found that syphilis goes through three stages of development if a patient doesn’t receive any treatment, or insufficient treatment.
Scythes says the medical literature on syphilis shows that in its later tertiary stages – or when syphilis has become latent – T. Pallidum alters the immune system. Thus, you are less likely to die from the direct effects of syphilis, and more likely to expire from the opportune infections caused by your immune system being turned off – the same infections you die of if you develop AIDS. But the manifestation of these later stages can take up to 10 years to appear after your first exposure to T. pallidum. Which is why, according to Scythes, the gay men getting syphilis in the ‘70s began dying in ‘80s – years after their initial exposure. Therefore, if Scythes is correct, you can have declining death rates of AIDS today, and rising rates of syphilis, but the later manifestations of the disease – including what we call AIDS – might not show up for years down the road.
While insisting that AIDS is caused only by HIV, the medical establishment concedes that co-factors might determine the progression of illness and whether you actually develop full blown AIDS. People are then left with the chicken and egg quandary – how much do co-factors determine whether you get AIDS? After all, there’s no shortage of people who test positive for HIV and live long healthy lives, whether they take drug treatments or not. How much do co-factors play a deciding role in whether you progress to AIDS? The scientific community doesn’t know or seem to care. Because they haven’t bothered to spend any time or money examining the matter, given that this might challenge their dogmas.
In regards to drug treatments, Law references a 1998 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that shows how protease inhibitors prolong the life of HIV-infected patients. Let me point out that my Maisonneuve article never said protease inhibitors don’t work. I say they are toxic and have harmful side effects – which Law neither mentions nor denies.
But the 1998 NEJM article she refers to is misleading. For example, in 1997 the way in which trials assessing the efficacy of new antiretroviral drugs for HIV were fundamentally changed. Instead of having to show that a new drug resulted in a reduction in the risk of AIDS events, drug licensing bodies said it was sufficient to show that a new drug resulted in sustained suppression of HIV and rises in CD4 cell counts in a test tube.
Yet these new trial protocols didn’t take into consideration the negative consequences of the drugs’ toxicity – which can shorten patients’ lifespan. Indeed, by 1998, many of the horrible side effects of protease inhibitors were only just being documented. By 2001, the toxicity of the protease inhibitors was so severe the US government reversed its position that the drugs should be given to people who’d merely tested positive for HIV and should be delayed prescribing as long as possible. Today, the dosage and toxicity of protease inhibitors given to patients is markedly less than way back in 1998.
How effective are protease inhibitors? The medical community claims the reduced number of AIDS deaths is directly attributable to these wonder drugs. But this is a highly dubious contention. The decline in AIDS deaths can be attributed to a whole host of factors including: the impact of safe sex measures and changes in gay lifestyle since the ‘80s; the tendency of diseases to wipe out the most sickly in the early period of an epidemic’s progression; people taking better care of their health in general; and the fact that the definition of AIDS was altered to embrace a larger cohort of healthier people. Furthermore, AIDS deaths had begun to decline before protease inhibitors were introduced in the mid-‘90s.
In 2006, the British medical journal The Lancet published a study examining the long-term impact of protease inhibitors on 22,000 HIV-infected adults. It found that the drug regime seemed to show that the “virological response after starting (protease inhibitors) has improved steadily since 1996. However, there was no corresponding decrease in the rates of AIDS, or death, up to 1 year of follow-up.” Ultimately whether an HIV-positive patient should go on protease inhibitors or not is an individual decision, but no one should naively assume you are going to live longer by taking them.
Finally, Law mentions the impact AIDS has had on Africa and former South African president Thabo Mkebi’s efforts to dissuade his country from using protease inhibitors. She claims this led to over 300,000 needless adult deaths and 30,000 infant HIV infections. In my article, I didn’t discuss the AIDS situation in Africa for a variety of reasons: largely because it’s a huge subject in and of itself, and space in the magazine was at a premium.
But Law has done a terrible disservice to the subject in how she addresses it. The study from which Law obtained the sum of 300,000 fatalities was produced by Harvard School of Public Health in 2008 and claims that the failure to make protease inhibitors available to South Africans due to Mbkei’s interference led to this catastrophic death toll. Now one thing should be mentioned about Harvard: Last year, 200 medical school students and faculty joined forces to expose the pharmaceutical industry’s insidious influence on the school and many of its faculty. The school had received an “F” by the American Medical Student Association for its lousy track record of monitoring and controlling drug industry money. Harvard receives among the most money from Big Pharma than any other university in the States. About 1,600 of the school’s 8,900 professors had ties to some form of private sector health care businesses, including 149 ties to Pfizer and 130 with Merck.
Mbeki’s resistance to the introduction of protease inhibitors was because they were expensive and toxic and, in a poor country with a high rate of malnutrition like South Africa, he was justifiably skeptical about whether this expenditure made a lot of sense. The 2008 Harvard study is merely a guestimate – a what-if conjecture if the drugs had been used earlier, based on the shaky proposition that protease inhibitors prolong life expectancy.
The problems with the Harvard study are self-evident: in South Africa and most African countries, it’s almost impossible to determine who’s dying of AIDS and who’s dying from age-old illnesses common to Africa like sleeping sickness and malaria or other diseases stemming from staggering poverty. AIDS is a catchall of up to 30 different diseases – including common maladies that have long plagued the poor, such as pneumonias and TB. So Africans dying of TB are often lumped in with people dying of AIDS.
In fact, in 1985, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conjured up what was called the Bangui definition: because HIV testing was almost non-existent in Africa due to a lack of resources and money, this definition meant that doctors could diagnose AIDS based on a checklist of symptoms. Yet these symptoms – which included loss of body weight, herpes or coughing – are common to many other diseases prevalent on the continent. Suddenly, AIDS cases skyrocketed, not based on actual HIV testing, but on this questionable means of determining who had AIDS and who didn’t.
In the end, does HIV cause AIDS? It may and it may not. The problem is that the medical community has no interest in exploring the matter beyond HIV. They dogmatically cling to this paradigm, in spite of their failed efforts to find a cure or vaccine or a non-toxic treatment. And Stephanie Law’s article was a further example of that blinkered mindset.