AIDS is caused by the HIV virus. It is highly contagious, transmitted by blood and other bodily fluids. An HIV-positive individual will eventually develop AIDS, a fatal disease for which there is no cure.
These statements have been dogma for much of the past two decades. They have changed the way America has sex, altering male-female (and male-male) relationships, dealing a death blow to the ''70s disco scene and ushering in a new era of sexual responsibility. An entire generation has grown up practicing "safe sex," or feeling guilty if they don''t.
But what if everything we know about HIV and AIDS is not true? What if AIDS is not a fatal disease caused by an infectious virus? What if AZT and the new "AIDS cocktails" do more harm than good? That''s what a three-year-old, Los Angeles-based group called HEAL (Health Education AIDS Liaison) is saying: If you test HIV-positive, don''t assume you''re going to die. Eat right, maintain a healthy lifestyle, keep your spirits up, and live.
That''s a pretty bold statement, if not entirely new. There have been other groups to dismiss the AIDS epidemic, but most of them were right-wing Christian organizations that considered AIDS to be God''s vengeance on homosexuals.
HEAL, which just formed a local chapter last month, is different. Its founders, and most of its members, have tested positive for HIV. For that reason alone, their opposition to the way AIDS is understood and treated deserves more than a quick dismissal, if for no other reason than they are the folks whose lives are on the line. And they''re saying, we''re not buying it. We refuse to take your drugs, and we refuse to die.
The overwhelming majority of the medical establishment dismisses HEAL''s claims as just plain wrong, if not downright dangerous. "It''s like people who say the Holocaust never existed," says Dr. Allen Radner, head of Natividad Medical Center''s Immunology Division Outpatient (NIDO) clinic. "It''s such a ludicrous statement."
But that''s not convincing HEAL advocates. Michelle Rolfe, head of the Monterey HEAL chapter, tested positive for HIV in 1988. "I believed I was going to die," she says. But she did not take AZT, the only drug used at the time. And she never developed any of the fatal illnesses her doctors expected. Today, 10 years later, she''s alive, healthy, and angry (see sidebar.)
"We get a lot of flak from people who say we''re just making it easier for people with HIV to live in denial," she says. "But we are the people coming forward with HIV, who have been the subject of the party line, and who are seeing that it''s not working for us anymore.
"Why, after 10 years, don''t I have AIDS? That''s what they can''t explain to me. In a way, you have a better chance of surviving if you don''t take the HIV test. It''s the fear that can kill you."
Not One Disease
HEAL, which reorganized in 1995 from a previously defunct group, and which now has dozens of chapters across the US and Europe, does not claim that AIDS doesn''t exist. HEAL activists are saying, however, that AIDS is not a new or discrete disease, but a designation for more than 30 serious and fatal conditions that exist with or without the HIV virus being present, including diarrhea, pneumonia, Kaposi''s sarcoma, cancer and tuberculosis. These are diseases, HEAL activists say, that strike a person whose immune system has been weakened, but not by an infectious virus.
HEAL''s main points, that have placed the group so at odds with doctors, scientists and AIDS organizations, are: 1) HIV has never been proved to be the cause of AIDS; 2) Therefore, the HIV test is badly flawed, and should not be taken as a death sentence; 3) AZT in particular, and the other AIDS drugs as well, make people sick instead of helping or curing them.
In addition, HEAL proponents charge that a conscious, self-interested lie is at the root of what they call the "AIDS conspiracy." They say that Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health, the man credited with discovering the HIV virus, and his colleagues had been working for two decades to find a viral cause for cancer, with no results. When AIDS came along in 1981, these researchers rushed to apply the same hypothesis to this new disease. Once Gallo made his seminal announcement of the HIV virus in April 1984, all research into non-HIV sources of AIDS halted. Even today, HEAL charges, scientists who want to investigate other possible causes of AIDS are unable to secure research grants.
Gallo''s hypothesis was reported as fact by the world media, according to HEAL founder and L.A. chapter head Christine Maggiore, because of the prevailing "atmosphere of terror and desperation" surrounding the AIDS epidemic. People wanted answers, Maggiore says. Gallo gave them one.
Monterey resident Peter Hughes, who says he is neither gay nor HIV-positive, believes HEAL has it right. "AIDS is a multi-billion-dollar industry," he says. "There are too many vested interests. The people at the top are too powerful, making too much money off it. People should be aware of the hidden motivations of the official spokespeople, the ones giving them information about controversial topics, not just AIDS."
The HEAL argument is laid out in excruciating detail in Inventing the AIDS Virus, a 1996 book by Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology at U.C. Berkeley. Although Duesberg has been dismissed by much of the scientific and medical establishment as a lone kook, he is in fact not alone. His book''s introduction was written by Kary Mullis, the 1993 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, who writes that he moved to Duesberg''s defense when he, too, was unable to find a satisfactory scientific reference for the statement that HIV causes AIDS. And more than 2,000 scientists, researchers and other professionals in the field belong to the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of HIV-AIDS, an organization whose members believe that the HIV paradigm must be re-examined.
Still, the nay-sayers are a drop in the bucket. Many AIDS activists and doctors in the field won''t even respond to HEAL''s claims, finding them without merit, but with the potential to hurt AIDS patients.
Natividad''s Radner, speaking from his own experience as a physician who has treated hundreds of AIDS patients, says he sees "over and over again" that patients'' viral loads increase when they stop taking their AIDS drugs, and then they become sicker. When they take the drugs, their symptoms decrease. You can''t argue with the evidence, he says. "All of us working with HIV patients see that, half of our practice is these kinds of cases," he says.
AZT can cause adverse symptoms, Radner says, but it takes a suspension of logic to jump from that to saying that AZT and, by extension, all AIDS drugs, do more harm than good. "There''s no question that all medicine has some toxicity," Radner explains. "But it''s like saying people don''t die from cancer, they die from chemotherapy. That''s not true."
Not taking prophylactics, as HEAL advocates, is, he says, "absolutely insane." Anti-retroviral therapies like the new AIDS cocktails are helping to prevent opportunistic infections in HIV-positive patients, Radner says. "These opportunistic infections are terrible," he points out. Anything that can help save people from that kind of suffering should be applauded, even if the drugs are not perfect.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the NIH division that deals with HIV and AIDS, has put together a 14-point rebuttal to HEAL''s claims, which it sends out upon request. Point after point, the document offers evidence to counter HEAL''s charges.
No evidence that HIV is related to AIDS? Countless studies show, the NIH document writes, that the worldwide distribution of AIDS cases invariably mirrors the spread of the HIV virus in the affected population: Where HIV appears, AIDS is not far behind.
HEAL literature says that a major cause of AIDS among gay, white men in major urban centers in the 1980s stemmed from recreational drug abuse in the ''70s, as well as prolonged doses of antibiotics, known to cause suppression of the immune system, which were routinely prescribed to young gay men on a preventive basis to ward off herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases.
If so, the NIH counters, how does HEAL explain that so-called behavioral causes of AIDS--such as multiple sex partners and long-term drug use--have existed for many years, whereas the sharp increase in AIDS--characterized by the occurrence of formerly rare opportunistic infections such as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia-- did not occur in this country until the HIV retrovirus started to show up in certain population groups?
Making Sense of the Debate
On and on, point by point, the rebuttal continues. For readers with limited scientific knowledge, the terminology quickly becomes mind-numbing. How is the lay person supposed to follow a debate between molecular biologists concerning the pathogenesis of a particular retrovirus, much less assess that debate with any intelligence?
That''s why no avenues, no dialogue must go unexplored, HEAL activists assert. If no one is yet being cured of AIDS, they say, how dare we shut the door to any question, any alternative that may possibly yield useful information?
That''s Dave Rasnick''s point, too. A chemist with 20 years experience working with protease inhibitors, Rasnick is now a visiting professor in Duesberg''s lab and president of the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of HIV-AIDS. He says that when Gallo made his 1984 announcement of a retrovirus that was "the probable cause of AIDS," he took the entire medical establishment--including Rasnick--by storm.
By the end of ''85, however, Rasnick says, "It was clear to me that Gallo got it wrong. But that''s no big deal--most of what we scientists do is wrong. Most hypotheses are wrong. That''s why it''s so important to question. Science is a vigorous activity, it''s arguing, challenging, debating. By the end of that year, I thought, well, this is just another good idea that doesn''t work."
"Questioning is a fundamental tool used throughout history to arrive at understanding," says Christine Maggiore, who says she was "devastated" by her HIV-positive test result in 1992. "Researchers can''t find answers without first asking questions. And their ability to question should not be restricted by politics, religion, trends, social mores, profit margins or [well-known national AIDS activist] Larry Kramer." cw