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Five myths about HIV and AIDS

Despite the overwhelming evidence that HIV causes AIDS, a hardcore group still denies it (see AIDS denial: A lethal delusion). We explore five of the most common myths about AIDS.

MYTH: AIDS is not caused by HIV

DEBUNKING: This is the biggie, of course. As long ago as 1983, researchers first isolated HIV from people with AIDS. By 1985, they had developed a test showing that the overwhelming majority of people with AIDS have antibodies to HIV in their blood. They also showed that people who test HIV-positive and initially appear healthy go on to develop AIDS the vast majority of the time unless they are treated.

Denialists often claim that HIV has never met "Koch's postulates" - a list of conditions that must be met to prove that a particular infectious agent causes a disease, drawn up by 19th-century German scientist Robert Koch. It is debatable how appropriate it is to focus on a set of principles devised for bacterial infections in a century when viruses had not yet been discovered. HIV does, however, meet Koch's postulates as long as they are not applied in a ridiculously stringent way:

POSTULATE 1: The germ must be found in every person with the disease. In 1993, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, reviewed 230,179 cases of AIDS-like illness. Only 47 people tested HIV-negative, less than 0.025 per cent.

POSTULATE 2: The germ must be isolated from someone who has the disease and then grown in pure culture. HIV has been isolated according to the most rigorous standards of modern virology. A small group of Australian scientists, the so-called Perth Group, claims that there is no proof that HIV exists. Then again, neither do the viruses causing influenza, smallpox, yellow fever, measles and many others, according to their bizarre criteria.

POSTULATE 3: The germ must cause the disease if given to a healthy person. Obviously no one is going to deliberately inject someone with HIV, but in three separate incidents, US laboratory workers accidentally exposed to purified HIV tested positive for that specific strain and later developed AIDS.

MYTH: Antiretroviral drugs are "poisons"

DEBUNKING: It is true that antiretroviral therapies (ART) cause side effects in many. These range from nausea and strange dreams to ones that can be life-threatening if not competently managed, such as nerve damage. Some are temporary while others persist.

Side effects are less of a problem, however, for people in the west using the latest ART regimens. And whether the regimen is old or new, scores of clinical trials conducted on four continents have shown that the benefits far outweigh the risks. To take just one example, a study of 1255 patients over two years found that the death rate fell from 29 per cent per year to just under 9 per cent per year (The New England Journal of Medicine, vol 338, p 853).

MYTH: HIV tests are flawed

DEBUNKING: The two most common HIV tests, ELISA and western blot, both test for HIV antibodies. The ELISA test used to occasionally generate false positives, for example by cross-reacting to flu antibodies if someone had recently had a flu vaccine. However, this has not been a problem since the test was improved in the mid-1990s. Plus people are only diagnosed as HIV-positive after an ELISA test has been confirmed by the western blot, which is more expensive and complicated but more accurate. The result is that less than 1 in 1000 tests now produces a false positive.

MYTH: AIDS is caused by poverty or malnutrition

DEBUNKING: This is often trotted out to explain the high toll of AIDS in Africa. In a study conducted in the Rakai district of Uganda, nearly 20,000 adults were followed for three years. The highest rate of HIV-related death was among the better educated and government employees, in other words, among the middle classes, rather than among the poor.

Even in South Africa, for several years the heartland of denialism, the figures refute the poverty myth. A count of death certificates in South Africa found that 57 per cent more people died in 2002 than in 1997. Poverty and malnutrition in South Africa were not increasing over this period - and the government itself says poverty actually fell.

MYTH: The lack of a widespread HIV epidemic in the west proves the orthodoxy is wrong

DEBUNKING: In the early 1980s there were doom-laden predictions that HIV would spread from high-risk groups such as gay men and drug users to the general population. In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV is indeed rampant among heterosexuals, with rates among adults in South Africa, for example, as high as 18 per cent. Yet in the west and in many developing countries outside of Africa, HIV remains largely confined to certain groups.

Why HIV spreads through some populations and not others is highly contentious. One theory is that the strain of HIV common in Africa is more easily spread by vaginal sex, while the strains outside Africa are more easily spread by anal sex.

A different explanation is the "concurrency theory". It states that in African countries where there is a heterosexual HIV epidemic, it is more common for people to have two or more long-term sexual partners concurrently, which promotes the spread of the virus. Western heterosexuals, by contrast, are generally more likely to be serial monogamists. While they could have more partners over their lifetimes, those who contract HIV keep it trapped in a single relationship for months or years (BMJ, vol 337, p a2638).

More: AIDS denial: A lethal delusion

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Have your say
Comments 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

What About That Virgin Thing

Mon Jun 22 21:17:58 BST 2009 by Jose nose

this is not christian thing

There is a CRIMININALLY STUPID INHUMANE belief/practice in Africa that says that males that have sex with a virgin will be cure of AIDS. the younger the virgin , the more potent the cure.

Has been spread by shaman/healers/alternative medicine 'people'. Looks like they had to come up with something about the AIDS thing because they couldn't let 'western medicine' win the battle of minds on that one

just google 'aids virgin cure' and be amazed.

there was one crazy case in the USA news recently

AMAZING what stupid/ignorant people can be led into. I guess education is the best prevention

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What About That Virgin Thing

Tue Jun 30 17:41:22 BST 2009 by DragonSlaveII

Ha! Wasn't there a rumor of curing "the clap" by sleeping with white women back in the 20s-ish? Or was that just a part of the novel Native Son?

Anyway, this would not be the only insane "cure" in the world...just google "bizarre cures"...although some might have merit. I just don't want to know if they do.

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Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 11:15:42 BST 2009 by Louis Blois

If science is about open inquiry and investigation, why does NS present a story that denies the HIV deniers without giving somebody from this group a forum to present their side of the story? The tone of virulent denial on either side suggests that each position is to some degree faith based. If the positions of HIV critics and deniers have no merit, let's have them shot down fair and square. But in the name of scientific dialogue, let's let them tell their side of the story as well. The total shutout is suspicious, to say the least

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 13:44:28 BST 2009 by Roger

There is no point in giving a plateform to arguments that have all been refuted many times.

Would you open a platform to those who say the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it?

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 17:58:21 BST 2009 by CocteauBoy

Why not? If that many people were convinced the Earth is flat, why not? What an opportunity for education, if nothing else. But blind-faith and closed-mindedness from either side would be unproductive. The mere fact that someone is comparing dissenters to those who think the world is flat just goes to show how closed-minded the non-dissenters are being. In just reading this article addressing the "myths," the responses are so lacking in any context or substance that I can see why dissenters continue to question in the face of such weak responses.

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 20:07:23 BST 2009 by Gil

It's like arguing with anti-vaxers, creationists, and other cranks... giving them a platform mostly just confuses lay people and makes them appear legitimate.

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Wed Jun 24 10:21:48 BST 2009 by PeterY

"Why not?"

Quite simply because our time is limited. When there is a huge body of evidence against a proposition then you should only review it if there is new, peer reviewed, trustworthy and clear evidence. No such evidence exists.

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Wed Jun 24 18:20:04 BST 2009 by Jeremy

We're not talking about flat-earth or the earth revolving around the sun. Those WERE legitimate debates back in their day because the evidence for each side was believable. Navigation, telescopes, etc. have improved since then.

But as long as AIDS is still with us and spreading, I would like to hear some of these other theories about it. If they're wrong, they're wrong. But let's base that on evidence and debate, not hidden-agenda PC hysteria. They have plenty of other inflammatory "whacky" science in this magazine portrayed without criticism on a regular basis. There's obviously some vendetta going on with the NS editors and a lot of viewers' comments are removed.

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Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 16:34:13 BST 2009 by Mr B

Why yes I believe he would!

And what an argument that would be!

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 17:33:12 BST 2009 by Dimitris

Instead of the podium, maybe we should let them in peace, award them a Darwin award after their voluntary demise from a disease that, according to them, does not exist, and be done with them.

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 17:59:47 BST 2009 by CocteauBoy

What a hateful and ignorant thing to say.

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 18:08:02 BST 2009 by Dimitris

Not at all. They have every right to die as they wish, including from AIDS. As long as they don't hide their disease from their sexual partners and they don't prevent their kids from being treated, it's their problem. On the other hand, they shouldn't expect any praise for their attitude either.

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 18:39:15 BST 2009 by Tom

How was his comment hateful or ignorant?

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Thu Jun 25 06:07:19 BST 2009 by Think Again

AIDS is a scheme to depopulate Africa so whites can settle it.

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 21:32:03 BST 2009 by RupertTheMonkey

There are very few scientific arguments that deny the HIV--AIDS linkage.

This article does air the denials, but outlines the prevailing, and overwhelming evidence that dismisses the denials.

If you are asking, why NS does not air the nonsensical claims of every crackpot evangelist, well then my friend, ...

Let Both Sides Have Their Say

Tue Jun 23 22:37:04 BST 2009 by Kurt

Lets let the alchemists and the creationists and the expanding earth people have a voice in that article too!

Denialists Vs Dissenters

Tue Jun 23 17:47:09 BST 2009 by CocteauBoy

I think there is a huge difference between "denialists" and dissenters. Dissenters have legitimate questions and many of them still stand unanswered or addressed. The responses to those questions tend to be similar to this article, with great leniency and creative maths being the only thing "debunking" the "myths." For instance, I love how the "myth" of HIV having never been isolated is "debunked" by saying that, "well, yeahhhh, if you actually stick to the postulates, it's not valid, but if you are lenient and don't really stick to the postulates, then HIV meets all of the criteria just fine!" LOL Or the convenience of leaving out the fact that the decline in percentages of death isn't due to medicine, but due to the sheer number of people being newly-diagnosed because of continuous changes in what it means to be HIV positive or having AIDS. If 50 people die out of 100 diagnosed, and 50 people die out of 5000 diagnosed, OF COURSE the percentages are going to change. The number of those dying didn't change. It's always been a rather small number... far smaller, in fact, than the number of those who die from heart disease, as just one example. And the "epidemic" in Africa? If all it takes is weight loss, headaches, and diarrhea to be diagnosed with AIDS (which is the most common form of diagnosis), then it makes sense that a starving country would have a rampant population with this diagnosis.

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Denialists Vs Dissenters

Wed Jun 24 03:15:50 BST 2009 by Just Saying

Just wanted to point out that:

"If 50 people die out of 100 diagnosed, and 50 people die out of 5000 diagnosed, OF COURSE the percentages are going to change. The number of those dying didn't change."

is kind of a silly statement when you consider how these studies are done.

Usually two similar populations are selected. They are usually as similar in size, symptoms, demographics etc. as they can be made (The populations have to be similar for the results to be meaningful)

They then look at the effect of treatment on one group vs. no treatment or placebo in the other. What it means when it is reported is that the death rate has dropped from 29% to 9% is that the death rate from this group of n people that were receiving x treatment was 29%/year. They then compared the death rate in a second group of n people with y treatment and found that the death rate was 9%/year. So y treatment can be said, with varying confidence based on size of group and other factors, to reduce the death rate in patients with a defined set of symptoms (AIDS) who also test + for HIV by 20%/year. They followed them over 3 years because the progression of AIDS from first symptoms to death is often not rapid but the amount of people in each group did not change (apart from the ones who died) over this period.

Comments 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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