Skinning the HIV/AIDS Cat

December 3, 2010

2 Dec – There’s more than one way to approach this task, so popular folklore would have it. The experience of three decades teaches that a direct assault within the mainstream-controlled venues does not bring attention to the evidence. Moreover, the most important audience is not the various phalanxes of those whose livelihoods and status and self-image are inextricably caught up with the official belief. Those who are being seriously damaged by current practices are an important audience; but so is the much larger mass of people who have so far taken no special interest in HIV/AIDS and know only the sound-bites about it that pervade the public arena. The latter audience can be approached indirectly, attaching something about AIDS Rethinking to discussions whose focus is something else. At the very least, that has the potential of making many people aware that the official HIV/AIDS belief does not have a monopoly, indeed that it has serious flaws. Furthermore, those people are not likely to be impressed by the indecent and illogical maneuvers of the likes of Kalichman or Moore.

by Henry Bauer PhD

Professor Marco Ruggiero has demonstrated the feasibility of such an indirect approach, for example by discussing the lack of danger of “HIV infection” for medical students when they perform dissections as part of their education (Medical students in Italy need not fear “HIV” when dissecting cadavers). This brought important debunking information about “HIV” to a whole set of disciplines — anatomy, embryology — whose practitioners might have had no previous exposure to anything at all about “HIV” or “AIDS”.

Ruggiero has now brought HIV/AIDS skepticism to the attention of different audiences again, namely anthropologists and historians of science and others as well. The vehicle is a volume just published by Florence University Press in memory and honor of Paolo Mantegazza (1831-1910), founder of the Italian Anthropological Society and of an Anthropological Institute or Museum in Florence.

The book is open-access: click on “Accesso aperto all’opera” on the pertinent page on the Florence University website. The volume has a chapter by Ruggiero and myself (he had invited me to contribute from the viewpoint of science studies as well as HIV/AIDS) with the title (freely translated from the Italian), “Paolo Mantegazza, the relationship between mind and brain, including ‘Elements of Hygiene’ and AIDS”.

The book is in Italian, but our chapter has a summary in English (on p. 231). Pointing to Mantegazza’s wide range of interests, we remark on how the many sub-specialties of “HIV/AIDS” proceed in comparative isolation: some disproofs of HIV/AIDS theory or practice are known to one specialty but ignored by others.

Here too (courtesy of Google Translator, copy-edited by HHB) is a free translation of the section dealing particularly with HIV/AIDS, “Paolo Mantegazza ed il virus HIV” (pp. 238-42):

Few people know that the HIV virus was present in humans during the life of Paolo Mantegazza, even though the AIDS syndrome, now erroneously attributed to the virus, was entirely unknown even to such acute observers as Mantegazza. And this was at a time when conditions of hygiene and nutrition were definitely worse than in the 1980s, when the syndrome was described for the first time in cities in the United States. One may presume confidently that Paolo Mantegazza today would find it difficult to accept the HIV=AIDS dogma — dogma indeed, not the scientific truth that Mantegazza loved above all else.

Though Mantegazza’s work was chiefly in the late nineteenth century, he could nevertheless be described rightly as a Renaissance Man in view of his wide range of interests and activities, which comprised not only science but also writing fiction including science fiction. His books deal with physiology (hatred, love, pain, women), hygiene, physical anthropology, romantic relationships, indeed human nature itself. From a professional point of view, Mantegazza could be defined as an anthropologist in the modern sense of the term. As a professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Florence, he founded the first Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in Italy and the Italian Anthropological Society. His broad interests contrast strongly with the narrow specialization that has come to characterize education and academe in recent times, and it is worth contemplating the damage that excessive specialization has wrought as the broader meaning of specialized research is ignored instead of being integrated with other specialties.

For example, a modern-day non-dogmatic open-minded thinker of the ilk of Mantegazza would realize immediately that activists, politicians, and the public are misled, deceived, about HIV and AIDS owing to (deliberate?) lack of clarity, understanding, and coordination among clinicians, virologists, vaccinologists, epidemiologists, anthropologists, geneticists, developers of drugs, social workers; in other words, there is lacking a global vision, whose presence was perhaps the most notable feature of Mantegazza’s approach.

Honoring outstanding innovators like Paolo Mantegazza, historians do so explicitly in the context of their intellectual contemporaries and the prevailing Zeitgeist, and their achievements are not diminished by acknowledging that human understanding of the natural world has continued to progress. Thus Linus Pauling is often described as the greatest chemist of the twentieth-century, and this opinion has outlived Pauling’s theories of the chemical bond or the structure of DNA. The historians’ recognition of the need to consider changes in the Zeitgeist and to judge actions and insights and people in their own context is often lacking, however, among others.

For example, when critics today attack what they call “Darwinism”, they often attack what was suggested over a century and a half ago, not what contemporary evolutionary theories are that incorporate in a modified way some of Darwin’s original insights. Similarly, when Wikipedia refers critically to Mantegazza’s views on human races and human evolution it contradicts its own acknowledgment that his were “advanced . . . social views” [emphasis added] when published in 1871.

The inertia of the conventional wisdom has as co-conspirator the growth of specialization. A century after his own time, Mantegazza would find it much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to be at the forefront in so many different fields; and in the competitive climate of contemporary academe, some would view in a negative way the breadth of his concerns, preferring today’s typically highly specialized research that often borders on monomania. The demands of specialized work are such that researchers are rarely able to remain informed of progress outside their narrow specialization or to appreciate the broader implications of their own work; for example, doctors and biologists enthused by the promise of molecular biology typically ignore or minimize the potential dangers of creating unprecedented organisms and the misgivings of many people about the destruction of human embryos, and governments and oil companies insatiable for the money and power that flow from oil do not consider seriously enough the consequences that could result from an uncontrolled release of oil into the oceans.

Blinkered to just their own intricate but highly limited concerns, researchers can continue to base their work on theories or interpretations no longer supported by the evidence amassed in specialties neighboring their own. In this era of intense specialization, just as is often said about chess, observers may understand the game more than do the players. HIV and AIDS offer many illustrations of this phenomenon: physicians unaware of what researchers say about how to interpret “HIV” tests, for example.

When war came to involve populations as a whole rather than only the military, it became recognized that war was too important to be left to the generals. Now that science impacts almost every aspect of human society, science too has become too important to be left solely to professional specialists. Supervision by informed non-specialists is a necessary and indispensable safeguard against disasters that can occur when the specialists proceed on their different and mutually incompatible ways, sealed hermetically in their own specialty, the very opposite of the Renaissance-Man approach that Mantegazza exemplified.

When it comes to HIV and AIDS, the mainstream dogma has certainly not helped the progress of knowledge, as no dogma can by definition — not even in specialized areas of research on HIV and AIDS. For example, the theory that HIV was the sole cause of AIDS (described here as the dogma HIV = AIDS) has been superseded by the recognition that the original “slow virus” concept was wrong and by the discovery of human endogenous retroviruses and their implications. The first postulated human “slow virus” was the agent supposedly responsible for the kuru disease among the Fore tribe of New Guinea, a condition that destroys brain cells and that Mantegazza would surely have found interesting from the point of view of medical anthropology and the ancient practice of anthropophagy. Carleton Gajdusek was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976 for the discovery of this type of disease agent, although he and others had been unsuccessful for decades in attempts to actually find even traces of this supposed virus in the tissues of those who had died from the disease: the rationale for the existence of a slow virus was entirely circumstantial, based on assumptions about the manner of transmission and that the symptoms appear only after about a decade, or even several decades; at the same time, other researchers continued to attribute kuru disease to other causes. When virologists around 1980 sought a viral cause for AIDS and could not discover immediate chains of transmission, they turned to the precedent of kuru and assumed again a “slow virus” latency period of years, an assumption that remains to this day, of about a dozen or more years between infection and the development of symptoms. This assumption has remained today’s dogma even after Stanley Prusiner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996 for proving that kuru was not caused by any virus but rather by prions, abnormal protein molecules that have nothing to do with any virus.

Relevant in this context is the history of HTLV-I and-II, which on the one hand are declared to be oncogenic human retroviruses while at the same time admitting that they “tended to be transmitted within families and to stay within families for generations”, which surely describes an inherited condition and not an infectious disease. Gallo has never renounced his claim that HIV, which he had called HTLV-III, is a member of the family of human leukemia viruses and that HTLV-I and HTLV-II are co-factors with HIV in causing AIDS.

The advancement of knowledge about the existence and nature of human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) makes it increasingly plausible that the riddles of HIV=AIDS theory are due to misunderstandings about the relationship between the expression of HERVs and signs of infection by HIV. In fact, a test for “HIV-antibodies” may only be the result of a partial expression of HERVs.

“HIV” (in quotation marks to emphasize doubts as to its existence, especially given the discovery of HERVs) is supposed to mutate at a truly extraordinary rate while managing to remain just as pathogenic. This would be unprecedented in the light of evolutionary theory, one might even call it anti-Darwinian; and Mantegazza might well have regarded it as a science fiction rather than as science. This apparent mutation of “HIV” is probably the result of a wide variety of HERVs that have accumulated in the human genome over a long period of time.

So pervasive and dangerous is the degree of specialization in research on HIV and AIDS that the significance of these centrally pertinent new understandings has not overcome the inertia of the HIV=AIDS dogma. Here are some more examples of observations which, in the spirit of  Mantegazza, we offer as deconstructions of the dogma:

  1. By the early 1990s there had been reported a considerable number of HIV-negative AIDS cases, i.e. without signs of viral infection. This fact did not lead to a questioning of dogma, however; instead, another new disease was invented, idiopathic CD4-T-cell-lymphopenia. Translated into everyday language, this means a lack of CD4 cells for an unknown reason, which is exactly what was the actual description of AIDS before the supposed involvement of HIV become official doctrine. This formidable contradiction is even present in the Italian Ministerial Directives which explicitly provide for the diagnosis of AIDS in the absence of positive signs of HIV infection. But if a disease (syndrome) may be present in the absence of its presumed causative agent, does this not by itself mean that the HIV virus is not the causative agent?
  2. Even in the early 1990s it was recognized that Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), one of the three original AIDS conditions, was not caused by HIV, as evidenced by the fact that many patients with KS were HIV-negative. This observation in itself should be enough to convince non-specialist observers that the HIV=AIDS theory was at best incomplete, at worst completely wrong; but again the fact of specialization allows researchers to continue to go their own way, taking for granted the HI =AIDS dogma while, for example, seeking to trace the origins of HIV in other species (primates) and in Africa; trying to define recombination and the infinite variety of the alleged HIV genome; trying countless variations on antiretroviral drugs of all kinds; inventing “HIV” tests that are faster and more convenient — but also so unreliable that the so-called disclaimer (in Italian vernacular “Bugiardini”) does not recommend its use for diagnosis, and so on. There is a nearly infinite space for research that has no relevance to the central question of whether HIV causes AIDS; and many if not all researchers in the field continue along these different paths, all deaf to evidence of a lack of causal relationship between HIV infection and AIDS.
  3. The observation of a large number of HIV-positive individuals who are healthy in the long term has contradicted the initial belief (“belief” to be understood as conviction without scientific basis) that HIV infection is incurable and leads to AIDS and death. Instead, the doctrine has been defended by considering these cases as rare and mysterious, even though epidemiological data indicate that 50% of “HIV-positive” individuals do not progress to AIDS.
  4. The failure of every attempt to vaccinate against HIV and the failure of  every attempt to prepare a protective microbicide against HIV has not shaken the dogmatic belief, even when “antiretrovirals”, declared capable of killing HIV in vivo, do not kill it even in vitro!
  5. Even the early observations that people with AIDS became worse after treatment with antiretroviral drugs did not upset the dogma. Instead, the standard choice was made, to invent yet another new phenomenon, “immune restoration syndrome”, in which a recuperating immune system somehow harms the patient rather than helping. Not only that, the invention of this syndrome has not stopped the constant assertion that antiretroviral drugs save lives or at least prolong it at a high benefit-cost ratio.
  6. The continuing failure to provide a reasonable mechanism whereby the presence of HIV would lead to the destruction of the immune system has left the dogmatic mind apparently unaffected, although each proposed mechanism has proved to be wrong.

A person informed but not specialized, as Mantegazza was more than a century ago, would definitely consider this framework as a whole and try to encourage the various specialists to pay attention to one other. Moreover, with a view infused by developments in anthropological and social phenomena of human sexuality, if Mantegazza were on the contemporary scene he would certainly quarrel with behavioral assumptions that HIV=AIDS dogma postulates as essential for the transmission of the virus. Many sociological and anthropological studies of sexual behavior have found that Africans and African-Americans are more circumspect, even puritanical than were the white settlers in Africa or are the white Americans in the U.S.; yet even today the results of HIV tests are interpreted by specialists of the HIV=AIDS dogma in exactly the opposite way, just because the dogma insists that HIV is transmitted through sexual contact.

For example, James Chin,  the former WHO epidemiologist, says that the African epidemic of “HIV” can be explained only if it assumed that 20-40% of adult Africans have at least a dozen ever-changing sexual partners. That scenario should be considered absurd on its face, even by common sense. Instead, thinking in terms of HERVs rather than HIV=AIDS dogma, a more likely explanation of why people of African origin tend to be positive for HIV more frequently than others is simply that the special genetic characteristics that yield “HIV-positive” results are related to the racial lineage and have nothing to do with an HIV virus. At a minimum, the researchers who claim to study HIV and AIDS in each subspecialty should seek the advice of the anthropologist and sociologist before speculating and making assumptions about the sexual behavior of certain groups of human beings.

There is yet another way in which anthropology is pertinent to research on HIV and AIDS, and in fact to all scientific work. The unspoken assumption is widespread that the pursuit of knowledge is basically the same type of work, no matter the field in which knowledge is sought. In reality, the so-called academic disciplines are not only abstract intellectual fields, they form what looks like different cultures. So chemists and physicists (say) differ somewhat in the same way as French and German people (say) differ, and the sharing of knowledge and understanding across specialties is beset by cultural and semantic barriers.

Of course, anthropology itself is not immune from the negative aspects of over-specialization under the pressures of careers and conflicts of interest. In fact, there is often a serious rift between so-called physical and so-called cultural anthropology. But because anthropology is by definition the study of humanity, it must rightly deal with every aspect of human nature and human behavior. For that, such iconic Renaissance figures as Paolo Mantegazza may serve as welcome role model.

With the publication of this volume under the auspices of the University of Florence Press, Marco Ruggiero has once again,  infiltrated AIDS Rethinking into official, mainstream, peer-reviewed circles. That the approach is bearing fruit is illustrated by the fact that the publishers of technical reference books recently invited Ruggiero, on the basis of his article about medical students and dissection, to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming work on “HIV Infection”. I’ve received a couple of similar invitations, probably as a result of the paper by Galletti and me that extended the dissection issue to conditions in South Africa.