The latest issue of Harper's Magazine contains a stunning 15-page article by well-known AIDS denialist Celia Farber (formerly of Spin magazine) that extensively repeats UC Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg's discredited theory that HIV does not cause AIDS. Among the claims that Duesberg makes (and Farber recounts approvingly) are:
AIDS is actually a "chemical syndrome, caused by accumulated toxins from heavy drug use."
"Many cases of AIDS are the consequence of heavy drug use, both recreational (poppers, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc.) and medical (AZT, etc.)"
"HIV is a harmless passenger virus that infects a small percentage of the population and is spread primarily from mother to child, though at a relatively low rate."
"75 percent of AIDS cases in the West can be attributed to drug toxicity. If toxic AIDS therapies were discontinued...thousands of lives could be saved virtually overnight."
"AIDS in Africa is best understood as an umbrella term for a number of old diseases, formerly known by other names, that currently do not command high rates of international aid. The money spent on anti-retroviral drugs would be better spent on sanitation and improving access to safe drinking water."
The best rebuttals to Duesberg's hypothesis are here, here and here. Over at Slate science writer Jon Cohen has a piece examining the wave of "pharmanoia" afflicting mass media. As Cohen and others point out, conspiracy theories like Duesberg's warp and exploit some of the best political interventions made by AIDS activists: that patients should be engaged with their medical diagnosis and treatment, that clinical drug trials should be grounded in sound ethical practices, that the emphasis on virology has circumvented immunological approaches to AIDS and that attention to the effects of poverty, malnutrition and other diseases is vital to preventing and treating AIDS.
It's a shame that a magazine as well respected as Harper's has shirked its duty to report on these issues and instead published Farber's article. South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign has put together a comprehensive rebuttal of Farber's article documenting over 50 errors. I also post here a statement from HealthGAP and a letter to Harper's from Gregg Gonsalves of GMHC.
HealthGAP:"Harper's Magazine has stooped to new lows in publishing a lengthy article that rehashes old distortions by a writer who does not believe that HIV causes AIDS. Harper's should immediately publicly retract this article, and devote the same space to an accurate piece of news about the global AIDS crisis. We are very concerned that this inaccurate article will be used to fuel government inaction outside the US, where some heads of state, such as the South African President and the Minister of Health, have invoked AIDS denialist rhetoric rather than prioritizing antiretoviral treatment access for the 800 South Africans with HIV who are dying unnecessarily each day."
Gregg Gonsalves:"Dear Editors,I have been a long-time Harper's Magazine reader. I am sorry that the March 2006 issue is the very last that I will read.
With Celia Farber's article "Out of Control, AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science," your magazine has managed to destroy its 156 year-old reputation in 15 pages.
Farber is a well-known AIDS denialist and publishing her work is akin to giving the folks at the Discovery Institute a place to expound upon the "science" of intelligent design, Charles Davenport a venue to educate us about the racial inferiority of the Negro or Lyndon LaRouche a platform to warn us about aliens, bio-duplication, and nudity.
If Harpers was some fringe publication or supermarket tabloid then we could all laugh at Farber's weird conspiracy theories and pseudo-science. The sad thing is that unlike the hoaxes perpetuated on the New Republic by Stephen Glass several years ago, Ms. Farber's reputation as a crank is widespread. Thus, it seems that your editors, after careful research and despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, decided that Ms. Farber was a serious journalist with a real story to be told.
If you choose to report falsehoods as truths when it comes to HIV/AIDS, how can I trust the veracity of the rest of what appears in your pages?