THEORIES THAT AIDS IS A GOVERNMENT CONSPIRACY TO DESTROY UNDESIRABLE POPULATIONS MAY MAKE POLITICAL SENSE, BUT ARE THEY SUPPORTED BY FACTS?
|AIDS has an uncanny knack for attacking people the dominant society considers "undesirables": gays,injection drug users (IDUs), prisoners, and people of color. The commonly cited US statistic that African Americans have twice the AIDS rate as white Americans understates the problem because it is based on the total number of cases since 1981. While white gay men constituted the large majority of cases in the early days, by the early 1990s the rate of new cases among Latinos was 2.5 times higher than among whites, and the black/ white ratio was even starker at 5-1 for men and 15-1 for women. By 1993, AIDS had become the leading cause of death among African||
between the ages of 25 and 44. Internationally, the racial
disparity is even worse: About 80 percent of the world's 9
million AIDS deaths through 1995 have occurred in Africa,
where 2 million children have already been orphaned.
AN ALMOST PERFECT FIT
|CBW, early European settlers used smallpox-infected blankets as a weapon of genocide against Native Americans. A few centuries later, the US Army conducted hundreds of tests that released "harmless" bacteria, viruses, and other agents in populated areas; one was to determine how a fungal agent thought mainly to affect black people would spread. Washington also subsidized the pre-marketing tests of birth control pills before a safe dosage was determined on Puerto Rican and Haitian women who were not warned of the potentially severe side effects. Since the 1940s, the US has conducted 154 tests on 9,000 people soldiers, mental patients, prisoners many of whom had no idea of the risks involved. On another level, the|
and(l.)certificate for subjects still alive in 1950's.
drug plague in the ghettos and
barrios whether by intent or not has the effect of
chemical warfare against these communities.
The most apposite example is the four decade-long Tuskegee syphilis study. Starting in 1932, under US Public Health Service auspices, about 400 black men in rural Alabama were subjects in an experiment on the effects of untreated syphilis. They were never told the nature of their condition or that they could infect their wives and children. Although penicillin, which became available in the 1940s, was the standard of treatment for syphilis by 1951, researchers not only withheld
treatment but forbade the men from seeking
help elsewhere. This shameful "experiment" was stopped in
1972, only after a federal health worker who was involved
blew the whistle.
Nor is experimentation on people of color a thing of the past. Beginning in 1989, 1,500 children in West and East Los Angeles and Inglewood were given an experimental measles vaccine as part of a government-sponsored trial. Most of the subjects were Latino or African American. The parents of these children were never told that they were part of an
experiment with an unlicensed drug, and thus had a less
than adequate basis for giving their consent. The
Edmonston-Zagreb, or E-Z vaccine, was also tested in
Senegal and Guinea-Bissau and Haiti, Guinea, and more
than a dozen other Third World countries. Trials in Los
Angeles, conducted with the cooperation of Kaiser
Permanente, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and
Johns Hopkins University, were stopped two years later
after questions were raised about the vaccine's relationship
to an increased death rate among female infants.
When use of the experimental drug came to light, CDC Director
|Dr. David Satcher noted, "A mistake was made. It shocked me. ... But things sometimes fall through the cracks." Dr. Stephen Hadler, director of the epidemiology and surveillance division of the CDC's national immunization program, said that although researchers have not confirmed a causal association between the more potent dose of E-Z vaccine and the deaths, "it was enough to make the World Health Organization say that high doses of the vaccine should no longer be considered for use in kids." It should be emphasized, he told the Los Angeles Times, that the deaths occurred among children living in poor countries, many of whom were malnourished and did not have||
access to adequate health care. Hadler did not, however, emphasize
that those same conditions are all too common in the US.
In light of this gruesome pattern and pervasive evidence in every corner of society that the lives of blacks are less valued, there are good reasons why so many prisoners as well as a significant portion of the African American community believe that government scientists deliberately created AIDS as a tool of genocide.
Dangerous To Your Health
There is only one problem with this almost perfect fit: It is
not true. The theories on how HIV the virus that causes
AIDS was purposely spliced together in a lab wilt
under scientific scrutiny. |
Moreover, these conspiracy theories divert energy from the work that must be done in the trenches if marginalized communities are to survive this epidemic: grassroots education, mobilizations for AIDS prevention, and better care for people living with HIV. They distract from the urgent need to focus a spotlight on the life-and-death issue of AIDS prevention and on the crucial struggle against a racist and profit-driven public health system that is responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
|After more than nine years doing AIDS education in prison, I have found these conspiracy myths to be the main internal obstacle in terms of prisoners' consciousness to implementing risk reduction strategies. A recent study at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, confirmed that African Americans who believe in the conspiracy theories are significantly less likely to use condoms or to be tested for HIV. Put bluntly: The false conspiracy theories are themselves a contributing factor to the terrible toll of unnecessary AIDS deaths. What's the use, believers ask, of making all the hard choices to avoid spreading or contracting the disease if the government is going to find a way to infect||
people anyway? And what's the point of all the hassles of
safer sex, or all the inconvenience of not sharing needles if
HIV can be spread, as many conspiracy theorists claim, by
casual contact such as sneezing or handling dishes?
The core of the mind-set that undermines prevention efforts is "denial." People whose activities have put them at risk of HIV are often petrified and turn to conspiracy theories as a hip and seemingly militant rationale for not confronting their own dangerous practices. At the same time, such theories provide an apparently simple and
satisfying alternative to the complex challenge of dealing with the
myriad of social, behavioral, and medical factors that propel
While convinced that humans did not design HIV, my main concern here is not to disprove the conspiracy theories. Neither do I attempt to solve the problem of the origins of AIDS or even review the many different theories and approaches to that question. The origin of this disease, as of many others, is likely to remain unsolved for years to come.
Rather, the article examines the validity of one set of
theories being widely propagated to prisoners and to African
American communities: that HIV was deliberately spliced
together in a lab as a weapon of genocide. What follows is a
look at the major flaws in, and political agenda of, the major
conspiracy theories. Readers uninterested in this detailed
critique may skip to the section beginning with "The Real
Genocide," which discusses the system that made these
theories so plausible and that abets as part of its routine
functioning the spread of AIDS to "undesirable"
on the work of two East German scientists, Jakob and Lilli
Segal, published by the Soviet news agency Tass on March
30, 1987. The Segals claimed that HIV could not have
evolved naturally, being in fact an artificial splice between
visna virus (a retrovirus that infects the nervous system of
sheep) and HTLV-1 (the first retrovirus known to infect
humans). This splice, they asserted, was created at the
notorious CBW lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and then
tested on prisoners in the area.
Finding the article politically credible, I sent it to Janet Stavnezer, a friend and long-time supporter of
the civil rights and anti-war movements, who is a
professor of molecular genetics and microbiology specializing
in immunology. Her response was unequivocal: The Segals'
splice theory is scientifically impossible.
A few years later, as perestroika spread, the Soviet Union withdrew these charges whether out of good science or good diplomacy is unknown. In any case, by then, even non-scientists had noted flaws. For example, there was an obvious error of US geography. The Segals had speculated that the Maryland prisoners, once released, congregated in New York City, which then became the seedbed of
the epidemic. But most Maryland prisoners would have returned
to Baltimore, or Washington, DC neither of which was an
early center of AIDS.
Since the Segals, there have been a number of related theories that HIV was artificially created by splicing two existing viruses. One, set at Fort Detrick, puts the date back to 1967; another implicates the World Health Organization (WHO), starting in 1972. Stavnezer and Mulder debunk these theories by showing that none of the viruses posited in the various splice theories has nearly enough genetic similarity (homology) with HIV to be one of its parents.
|Investigative journalist Bob Lederer conducted a separate inquiry into AIDS conspiracy theories for CovertAction Information Bulletin in 1987. One of his prime sources, Dr. David Dubnau, a long- time activist against CBW, was emphatic: The HIV splice theorists "are simply wrong," he said, and offered the same explanation as Stavnezer and Mulder. Lederer had written in the 1987 article that the various non-splice theories of dissemination were plausible. Recently, in light of current knowledge, he has revised his conclusion and determined that "None of the AIDS as CBW theories [including the non-splice theories] really holds up."||Needing a vehicle for the deliberate dissemination of the allegedly spliced virus, the conspiracy theorists also characterize vaccination programs (against smallpox in Africa, hepatitis-B among gay men in the US, and polio in various places) as examples of a CBW campaign. While vaccination programs with inadequate controls for contamination may have contributed to the spread of the infection, they could not have been a prime cause: The geography of the vaccination campaigns does not correspond with the locations of early centers of AIDS. Meanwhile, such unsubstantiated rumors can dangerously discourage people here and in the Third World from getting the same|
protection for their children that have done so much to stop
diseases for more privileged whites.
There is another telling problem with the theories: timing. HIV almost certainly arose well before scientists had any reason to consider retroviruses as possible CBW agents to destroy the human immune system. The first human retrovirus (HTLV-1) was not discovered until 1977, and could not immediately be linked to any disease. Through the end of the 1970s the search for human retroviruses was propelled by speculation that they might cause cancer, not that they would target the immune system.
|Since the epidemiological evidence shows AIDS in several countries in 1978, HIV (a virus with a long incubation period), had to exist at least a few years before that. And it is probably considerably older. Retrospective tests on 1,129 blood samples taken in 1971-72 from US injection drug users found that 14 were HIV positive. There are also cases of patients who died of AIDS-defining illnesses decades ago: a teenager in St. Louis in 1968, a sailor in England in 1959, and a Norwegian sailor, his wife and child in the late 1960s. Preserved tissue and blood samples from all of these cases later tested positive for HIV antibodies, although the more difficult direct tests failed to find the virus itself.||
Medical case histories going back to the 1930s the
earliest period in which accurate records were kept show
isolated cases with all the earmarks of AIDS. Various
analyses of the DNA sequences a technique used for broad
assessment of a specie's age have provided estimates for
the age of HIV that range from 30-900 years.
In brief, the lack of knowledge of any human retroviruses before the late 1970s and the compelling evidence for the earlier genesis of HIV virtually eliminate the possibilty that scientists deliberately designed such a germ to destroy the human immune system. More specifically, and decisively,
Stavnezer and Dubnau independently confirm that all the
alleged splices are in fact impossible because HIV does not
have nearly enough genetic similarity to any of the proposed
fight genocide. But Douglass, who is white, expresses little concern for black
lives. He instead states his purpose as being the defense of
Western civilization, and describes his politics as
"conservative" which turns out to be quite an
understatement for his ultra- right-wing political agenda.
Douglas taps into the font of mistrust created by the arrogance and glibness of establishment science. Quick acceptance of the still unproven African green monkey theory was especially suspect and led many epople to react against the presumptions of mainstream medicine. Douglass'
alternative, however, is a bizarre cocktail of half-truths,
distortions, and lies. He fails to recognize a basic distinction
in epidemiology between the cause of AIDS (a virus) and a
means of transmission (dirty needles) (p. 171). He evidently
thinks that all RNA viruses are retroviruses (p. 230), which
is like thinking that all fruits are citrus. And his
pronouncements on the possibility of transmission by insects
display fundamental ignorance of the science involved.
There is also something radically wrong with his statistics; he offers five different figures for the number of HIV-infected people in the US (pp. 53, 60, 63, 168, 170) without trying to reconcile the variations. He also "proves" that HIV is a splice of two other viruses by comparing shapes, as depicted in his
own crude sketches (p. 231), when the scientific method for
determining the degree of relatedness of different viruses is
to make a detailed comparison of the sequence of the base
pairs of nucleic acid in the DNA. Such an analysis disproves
the splice theory.
retrovirus to cause AIDS. He is unequivocal: WHO is talking
about "retro viruses" and is asking scientists to "attempt to
make a hybrid virus that would be deadly to humans.
...That's AIDS. What the WHO is saying in plain English is
`Let's cook up a virus that selectively destroys the T-cell
system of man, an acquired immune deficiency.' "
(Emphasis in original.) He presents an almost identical
description in his book. (p. 80)
Aside from the unlikelihood of conspirators' publishing their evil plans, Douglass' characterization borders on fraud. The WHO article in question is not primarily
|about retroviruses; it is not at all about engineering new viruses; it never discusses making hybrids; and it is absolutely not about making a virus to destroy the human immune system. Anyone who takes the time to look at the original will find that it details a number of existing viruses that cause various illnesses in humans and other mammals. Evidence was emerging by 1972 that some of these viruses, in addition to their direct damage, impacted the immune system. The only call the article makes is to study these secondary effects. He offers only one quote from the original. Not only does he change the context, he omits the list of viruses under study. All the listed viruses were related to already recognized illnesses; most are not retroviruses; none is a|
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