Rejecting AIDS Denialism

Just this October, at a HIV/AIDS conference, South Africa’s new Health Minister Barbara Hogan stated, “HIV causes AIDS.” To an outsider, those words are unremarkable. They state the obvious. Of course HIV causes AIDS. The link between the virus and the syndrome has been a fact since 1983. Yet, these three words represent nothing short of a revolution. It has taken countless studies, relentless pressure from activists, doctors, scientists and foreign governments and finally the outbreak of political infighting to bring about acceptance of that statement.
South Africa saw its first cases of HIV/AIDS during the early 1980s. Even as infection rates in the rest of the world stabilized, and in some cases declined, infection rates among the general adult population in South Africa ballooned from 0.7 percent in 1990 to 2.2 percent in 1992 to 18.8 percent today. It is estimated that 5.4 million South Africans are HIV- positive. There are many reasons, ranging from biological to cultural, offered as to why the South African epidemic has been so devastating. They are sources of much debate and disagreement. However, if there is one issue that has united the motley array of people concerned with HIV/AIDS, it has been the reckless denialism of the government.
Under President Thabo Mbeki, the recently deposed successor to Nelson Mandela, the South African government caused local and international outrage by denying the link between HIV and AIDS. Much like the Bush administration’s denial of global warming, the Mbeki government ignored the consensus in the scientific community by supporting fringe “scientists” and ideas.
Denialism is rooted in the willingness of leaders to politicize HIV/AIDS. Instead of seeing the epidemic for what it is – a health problem with profound implications for the welfare of millions – Mbeki’s government saw it as a threat to its political control. HIV/AIDS did not fit into Mbeki’s philosophy of African Renaissance, so he denied it. Anti-retrovirals were developed in the West and were ignored in favor of “traditional” treatments like garlic, olive oil and potatoes. Politicization’s costs have been high. It demoralized the medical community and created an information vacuum that permitted such harmful myths as the virgin cure, which claimed that HIV/AIDS can be cured by having sex with a virgin, subsequently confusing the population.
Hopefully, Minister Hogan’s statement signifies a new beginning. However, the tortured journey toward acknowledgment embodies everything that is wrong with the way HIV/AIDS and other health issues are handled. The journey indicates the way we overcomplicate and lose sight of what is right, just and decent.
Some time ago, before coming to South Africa, I met several student activists from UC Irvine’s chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicine (UAEM) who offered an alternative. Their organization, founded in 2001 by a group of graduate students at Yale University, cut its teeth on the campaign to convince Bristol Meyers Squibb, the pharmaceutical giant, to allow generic production of its antiretroviral drug d4T, branded Zerit.
Zerit is the fourth antiretroviral on the market. It took what is essentially a death sentence and turned it into a manageable chronic disease. In the United States and the rest of the developed world, miracle drugs like Zerit meant that HIV-positive people could look forward to full, productive lives. Unfortunately, such miracles didn’t come cheap. The cost, already high in the United States, is prohibitive in South Africa, where much of the population lives in poverty. UAEM and its partners found the situation fundamentally wrong. Health is not a commodity. There is no acceptable reason why people should suffer and die when a solution exists. In 2003, after a concerted campaign, UAEM convinced Bristol Meyers Squibb to allow the production of a generic, and therefore much cheaper, version of Zerit in South Africa.
This victory, however sweet, is not the end. The majority of people living in South Africa, and other undeveloped parts of the world, still lack access to medicines that are essential for life. Pharmaceuticals, under pressure from investors to produce ever greater profit margins, still prohibit the development of many generics. Like Mbeki, they forget that medicine is about relieving suffering and honoring human life. Timothy Minh, a medical and pharmacology student and founder of UCI UAEM put it best. “It’s simple really. It’s about social justice and doing what’s right.”

Mengfei Chen is a fourth-year international studies major. She can be reached at mengfeic@uci.edu.