It may seem remarkable that, 23 years after the identification of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), there is still denial that the virus is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). This denial was highlighted on an international level in 2000, when South African president Thabo Mbeki convened a group of panelists to discuss the cause of AIDS, acknowledging that he remained unconvinced that HIV was the cause . His ideas were derived at least partly from material he found on the Internet . Though Mbeki agreed later that year to step back from the debate , he subsequently suggested a re-analysis of health spending with a decreased emphasis on HIV/AIDS .
HIV denial has taken root in the general population and has shown its potential to frustrate public education efforts and adversely affect public funding for AIDS research and prevention programs. For example, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was for many years on the front lines of AIDS education and activism. But now a San Francisco chapter of the group has joined the denialist movement, stating on its Web site that “HIV does not cause AIDS… HIV antibody tests are flawed and dangerous…AIDS drugs are poison” (http://www.actupsf.com/aids/index.htm). In 2000 the chapter wrote letters to every member of Congress asking them to stop funding research into HIV . ACT UP San Francisco's position has been condemned by other ACT UP chapters, such as ACT UP Philadelphia and ACT UP East Bay (http://www.actupny.org/indexfolder/actupgg.html). Rock stars have weighed in on the topic. Members of the group “The Foo Fighters” provided music for a soundtrack of the recent documentary, “The Other Side of AIDS” (http://www.theothersideofaids.com/), which questions whether HIV is the cause of AIDS. The band has spread its message that HIV does not cause AIDS at concerts , and it lists the HIV denial group “Alive and Well” as a worthy cause on its Web site (http://www.foofighters.com/community_cause.html).
As these challenges to mainstream theories have largely occurred outside of the scientific literature, many physicians and researchers have had the luxury of ignoring them as fringe beliefs and therefore inconsequential. Indeed, the Internet has served as a fertile and un-refereed medium to spread these denialist beliefs. The Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis (“Reappraising AIDS”) noted, “Thanks to the ascendance of the internet, we are now able to reinvigorate our informational campaign” . The Internet is an effective tool for targeting young people, and for spreading misinformation within a group at high risk for HIV infection.
Two excellent online fact sheets have been prepared to counter many of the most commonly used arguments to deny HIV causation of AIDS [8,9]; as such, we will not discuss these in this article. Instead, we will review the current intellectual strategies used by the HIV denial movement. Although other forms of science denial will not be specifically discussed, the characteristics described below apply to many other forms of popular denial, including denial of evolution, mental illness, and the Holocaust.