Standing Up to Denialism and Junk Science

Along with colleagues at the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP/NY), I am deeply concerned that several board members at WBAI Radio are urging the station to bring back former health programmer Gary Null to its airwaves. Those board members, led by a former business partner of Null, claim that it would be a sound business decision, because it would bring listeners and donations back to the station.

We at ACT UP/NY differ. We believe his return would be a huge mistake and a violation of WBAI’s social justice mission.

ACT UP, a direct action AIDS organization dedicated to ending the worldwide pandemic, with chapters around the globe, has successfully used nonviolent protest to pressure the U.S. government and greedy corporations to stop dangerous policies that worsen the crisis and also to make life-extending treatments available to all people with AIDS seeking treatment. We have never taken drug company money.

Over the years, we have been repeatedly distressed about the life-threatening misinformation conveyed in Gary Null’s programming on HIV/AIDS. Null is an HIV/AIDS denialist, meaning he denies that HIV is the cause of AIDS, in spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

In the four years prior to Null’s cancellation in 2004, he brought viewpoints related to HIV denialsim to the air dozens of times; in the overwhelming majority of such cases, he did so in an unbalanced way.

His repeated programming denying that HIV is the cause of AIDS is dangerous in a metropolitan area where the virus is epidemic. Similarly, his broadcasts stating that AIDS is not spread to sexual partners of people with the virus could lead people listening to him to fail to use condoms or other safer-sex techniques, thus exposing themselves to a deadly infection.

“AIDS: A Second Opinion,” a video documentary that Null made in 1997, illustrates some of his problematic presentations on the virus. He introduces Christine Johnson, whom he identifies as a science writer, saying, “There is absolutely no AIDS epidemic anywhere. Unless you define an epidemic as a few cases trickling in here and there, which I don’t. It certainly has never lived up to the gross exaggerations and hysteria that has been generated on the issue of AIDS.”

But the facts of the matter show Johnson to be woefully wrong. In 1995, AIDS became the eighth leading cause of death and the leading cause among all Americans aged 25 to 44, according to data from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to a National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases fact sheet, in the United States, “as of December 31, 1999, 733,374 cases of AIDS and 430,441 AIDS-related deaths had been reported to the CDC. AIDS is the fifth leading cause of death among all adults aged 25 to 44 in the United States. Among African-Americans in the 25 to 44 age group, AIDS is the leading cause of death for men and the second leading cause of death for women.”

In 2005, UNAIDS, the United Nations agency charged with dealing with the AIDS crisis, estimated that 3.1 million people had died in that year alone, with more than 40 million infected. Even nine years ago, when Null completed his documentary, the facts clearly showed his “experts” to be wrong, and since then, the evidence against his case has become even more compelling.

Similarly, Null misrepresents the risks of HIV infection from sexual contact. In the same documentary, he presented Joan Shenton, director of Meditel Productions, saying, “There are so many things that are completely wrong about the HIV [as] the virus [causing] AIDS hypothesis. For example, if HIV is such a deadly infectious virus, why is it that the partners of people who are positive don’t get HIV and don’t get AIDS? It is very, very rare that anyone living with a person living with AIDS or HIV gets infected, so to speak, and the wives of hemophiliacs who are HIV/positive, a tiny proportion were said to have become infected.”

Yet there are many scientific articles, whose abstracts are available at pubmed.gov, available as early as the mid-‘90s, that refute this claim and instead demonstrate HIV transmission rates to female sexual partners of male hemophiliacs of 10 to 20 percent. Rates of sexual transmission of HIV to uninfected male partners of men with HIV/AIDS are much higher.

Null also promotes the views of those who say HIV medications are not only dangerous, but in fact the source of the problem in the first place. One of Null’s guests said, “AZT and so-called antiviral therapies cause the very disease they are supposed to prevent.” Yet the evidence is clear that these drugs, while having toxic side-effects in many, still extend lives and improve quality of life. In the first year these drugs became available on a widespread basis, mortality rates fell by 75 percent in the United States and by 85 percent in Europe, where access to health care is more widely available. For Null to present guests that overstate the problems with these drugs, in the context of an overall argument that HIV does not cause AIDS, encourages people with AIDS to not take their drugs.

Scientists and activists have been increasingly concerned about misinformation of the type spread by Null on HIV/AIDS because of its disastrous effect on public policy in countries such as South Africa that have large HIV/AIDS epidemics. The influence of denialists, including Null, on that nation’s president, Thabo Mbeki, caused his government to ignore the epidemic for years—at a time when it could best have been contained. In July 2000, 5,000 scientists and physicians working on HIV/AIDS, startled by the impact of the denialists, signed the Durban Declaration, presented at the international AIDS conference held there, stating, “The evidence that AIDS is caused by HIV-1 or HIV-2 is clear-cut, exhaustive, and unambiguous. This evidence meets the highest standards of science. The data fulfill exactly the same criteria as for other viral diseases, such as poliomyelitis, measles, and smallpox.”

In addition to the dubious guests Null has presented on air over the years, he has also used his show to direct listeners to his commercial Web site, where more inaccurate information is presented. It should not be surprising in the current climate of greedy profiteering that some of this so-called information is available for purchase there, as are vitamins, which while useful for slowing progression in people living with AIDS, are not a cure, nor even a treatment rivaling antiretroviral drugs, according to available research.

WBAI’s listeners deserve accurate information, especially about preventable, life-threatening diseases. Returning Gary Null to the air for fund-raising reasons is unethical.

Eric Sawyer is a longtime AIDS activist now focused especially on universal access to up-to-date AIDS treatments. This essay is based on a letter ACT UP/NY sent to WBAI management on January 17.

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