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Why HIV denialists are putting lives at risk

Bisi Alimi calls for a rational and scientific conversation about HIV to counter the superstitions that deny AIDS exists
Some faith groups believe they can cure HIV but that has lead to people dying from AIDS-related illness.

When three weeks ago I wrote the article on HIV criminalization, I was not expecting to see the piece hijacked by AIDS denialists. I have nothing against conspiracy theories. However, I prefer intelligent arguments.

If there is a need to dispute something, it’s fair enough to provide arguments that are convincing. This is not only particular to HIV. I have had opportunity to grow up in Nigeria where almost every idea or reasoning is built around conspiracy and no logic.

But the UK, America and western world more generally are not innocent of this either. How do you explain the American conservatives theory that Obama is the anti-Christ? Or the UK radical Christian community saying; same sex relationship will lead to a reduction in procreation?

This kind of lazy thinking has taken its roots in our society and made many of us too lazy to think and question. In fact the only way we can make it in life is to keep asking questions.

However I grew up in a society where asking questions was not allowed. Back then, if I asked too much or the wrong question, I risked being seen a rude or even as ‘demon possessed’. I remember once asking my Sunday school teacher: If God only created Adam and Eve, how were Cain and Abel able to marry? At least this can be classified as the simplest question to ask about the Bible story.

But while asking question is good, the desperation to always think there is a question to be asked about everything can, I think, be poisonous.

The great philosopher Bertrand Russell (1926) stated, ‘The theory of knowledge is a product of doubt. When we have asked ourselves seriously whether we really know anything at all, we are naturally led into an examination of knowing, in the hope of being able to distinguish trustworthy beliefs from such as are untrustworthy.’

Russell consciously used terms like doubt, knowledge, trustworthy and beliefs. These components of knowledge are very important for critical reasoning. When we doubt something, we ask questions so as to build trust and beliefs that will inform our knowledge.

So when the AIDS denialists systematically accused me of spreading the misinformation about HIV and its reality, I had no option but to resort to scientific proof of HIV.

I want to make it clear that I am not writing this to reply to the denialists. I can never do enough to change their views. These are views built over a period of years. But I can at least give someone another platform to think about the reality of HIV. Make someone go back to taking his or her medication. Or at least make one person take the step and go for HIV test.

Last year six people died in London after claims they had been cured of HIV by their pastor. These people were told to stop taking their medications and believe God has healed them. The simple act of ‘trust’ not only put their lives at risk, but the lives of other people they might have unprotected sexual relationships with.

Away from religious denial of HIV, there have been many arguments that claim HIV does not exist. One of them is that the test does not actually test for the virus. To know you have HIV, you have to take a test.

There are many tests for HIV. The most common one in the UK is the ‘fourth generation test’. This test looks for both the relevant antigen and antibody. Antigens are substances that are found on germs that force our body to develop antibodies. The antigen responsible for HIV is called ‘P24’.

It is important to make clear that the HIV test does not test for the virus. This is not peculiar to HIV. The test for other sexually transmitted infection does not test for the virus or the bacteria, but instead for the antigen and the antibodies.

So I wonder why the denialists have not used the same argument against gonorrhea, syphilis and others. Instead, for the past 25 years the denialists have been prepared to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others on the altar of superstition.

In August 1997, Nigerians woke up to the breaking news of the death of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Apart from his music and his charisma, Fela was also known for his outspokenness against HIV and AIDS. He was one of the leading denialists in Africa.

His autopsy started he died from AIDS-related complications. It is still baffling to see that there are many people in Nigeria that still believed Fela never died of AIDS. Many argued there was a conspiracy about his autopsy.

Fela was not the only one. Christine Maggiore gained fame in America by denying HIV and AIDS. She sold thousands of copies of her book What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong? She became the poster girl for AIDS denialists. She was even used as cover model for the magazine Mothering.

Prior to his time, Maggiore was diagnosed with HIV, she was even an HIV activist at one point in her life. However an encounter she had with an AIDS denialist changed everything for her. She stopped taking her drugs.

When she got pregnant, she refused to take anti-HIV drugs to protect her child from getting the virus. Worst still, she breastfed her baby despite the fact this put the baby at risk.

Like Fela, Maggiore became the victim of her decisions. She not only died of pneumonia (an AIDS-related illness), but she lost her daughter as well.
Away from the real life stories of AIDS denialists, there are also the wider questions; how do we account for the 34 million people living with HIV worldwide?

To the denialists this might possibly sound lame. Not that it bothers me, as I am sure they will have answers to everything I have said already.

But how can we explain what they think of as the ‘voodoo science’ behind anti-HIV drugs? I remember a friend who was diagnosed of HIV very late. His immune system had been seriously compromised. He had not just one but three signs of AIDS. He was practically dying.

After his admission and his diagnosis, he was immediately put on anti-HIV drugs. Within two months on being on these drugs, he was not just back on his feet. He was healthy again. He got his life back.

It is this kind of story that gives many hope and life. It is this kind of story the AIDS denialists can not just push under the carpet.

See Sky News’ investigation into health ‘healing’ of HIV here:

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