The Resurgence of AIDS Denialism: Confronting Misinformation in Public Health

AIDS Denialism Is Back. We Can’t Let It Take Root.

Every epidemic gives rise to conspiracy theories. I remember growing up constantly refuting claims that HIV didn’t cause AIDS and that antiretroviral drugs were harmful.

There existed a small group of individuals, including magazine writers, scientists from unrelated fields, and even Nobel laureates who had veered off course, rejecting the overwhelming scientific evidence and attributing the global pandemic to everything from amyl nitrate to unusual theories about bodily fluids and even AIDS medications themselves.

Conspiracies can have deadly consequences. When South African President Thabo Mbeki embraced these “alternative facts” in the late 1990s, influenced by late-night internet surfing on Netscape, he brought his country’s response to HIV/AIDS to a standstill.

A study conducted by Harvard University estimated that due to Mbeki’s policies, over 330,000 people died prematurely from HIV/AIDS between 2000 and 2005, and at least 35,000 babies were born with preventable HIV infections. During that time, a collective effort, including individuals living with HIV, activists, and scientists, rallied against this misinformation under the banner of a website called AIDSTruth.

After Mbeki’s departure from office in 2008, South Africa’s policies shifted, leading to the establishment of the world’s largest antiretroviral therapy program. Consequently, AIDSTruth ceased its operations in 2015, with AIDS denialism seemingly becoming a thing of the past.

The Resurgence of AIDS Denialism: Confronting Misinformation in Public Health
The Resurgence of AIDS Denialism: Confronting Misinformation in Public Health (Credits: GQ)

However, history repeats itself. In 2024, AIDS denialism has resurfaced, propagated by figures like Joe Rogan, Bret Weinstein, and RFK Jr. These individuals, previously known for promoting Covid-related conspiracies and anti-vaccination sentiments, have now turned their attention to discredited theories surrounding HIV and AIDS.

Weinstein, a former professor with a substantial following, recently appeared on Rogan’s podcast to disseminate debunked ideas about the origins of HIV and AIDS, echoing the narratives propagated by RFK Jr.

While delving into the psychology and politics behind AIDS denialism would be extensive, it’s worth noting that it often involves elements of racism, homophobia, and antisemitism.

For those interested in understanding its origins and impact, works such as Seth Kalichman’s “Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy” and Nicoli Nattrass’s “Mortal Combat: AIDS Denialism and the Struggle for Antiretrovirals in South Africa” provide valuable insights into the domestic and global ramifications of this phenomenon.

Addressing denialism poses a significant challenge. Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee, in a 2009 article in the European Journal of Public Health, suggest that while scientists may be inclined to engage in debates and scrutinize hypotheses, denialists often sidestep scientific discourse, employing tactics such as introducing conspiracies, utilizing fake experts, and misrepresenting facts.

They advise against engaging in prolonged debates and instead recommend exposing denialists for what they are and highlighting their deceptive strategies.

Denialism, whether concerning AIDS or other issues like evolution and climate change, cannot be effectively countered through scientific peer review alone. Giving credence to denialist arguments only serves to embolden them. It’s crucial for scientists and society at large to resist the temptation of false equivalence and actively challenge pseudoscience.

Currently, there are concerning developments in public health discourse. Donald Trump’s recent remarks in Virginia, expressing skepticism towards routine childhood vaccinations and suggesting defunding schools that mandate vaccines, raise alarm bells.

With measles outbreaks already occurring in places like Florida due to denialist attitudes, the prospect of such rhetoric gaining traction nationally is troubling. Trump’s previous flirtations with unfounded theories during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as suggesting the injection of bleach, highlight the dangers of unchecked misinformation.

In the face of such challenges, the responsibility falls not only on scientists to combat denialism within their disciplines but also on the broader public health community to take a stand.

Drawing from the example of activists who confronted Mbeki’s AIDS denialism in South Africa, it’s imperative for individuals in public health and clinical medicine to mobilize against the spread of misinformation and ensure that leaders who prioritize evidence-based policies are elected.

This is not a matter of partisanship but rather safeguarding the nation’s health against hazardous ideologies. The time for passive observation has passed; action is necessary to protect public health and well-being.

I'm Richard Rosales, I cover political news and ongoing US elections.