respected organizations like FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in
Reporting), since we share their viewpoint on the issue of
media censorship and bias.
You would think that a liberal media watch organization like FAIR
would question government and media propaganda regarding AIDS.
After all, FAIR claims to "scrutinize media practices that marginalize
public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints," and seeks to
"break up the dominant media conglomerates" and "establish independent
public broadcasting and promote strong, non-profit, alternative
sources of information."
But you would not know this from the November/December 1999
issue of Extra, FAIR’s bimonthly publication. In it, writer Sam
Husseini denounces Michael Fumento — a longstanding opponent
of the notion of a heterosexual AIDS epidemic — for an op-ed piece
Fumento wrote for the Washington Times (June 8, 1999). Since 1987,
Fumento has hammered away at the constant exhortations declaring
burgeoning AIDS epidemics among heterosexuals, teens, babies, and
women. He derides such sloganeering as "AIDS is an Equal
Opportunity Destroyer," a view promoted by the American
Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR).
Fumento is a former AIDS analyst and attorney for the US
Commission on Civil Rights and consultant on a National Institutes
of Health AIDS project.He published The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS
in 1991, and for over ten years has published regular updates on the
alleged heterosexual AIDS epidemic, around 40 to date (which may
be viewed on his web site, www.fumento.com).
Fumento's Washington Times article reported what should be
good news—a 20% decrease in new AIDS cases—stating "the bottom
is truly falling out of the epidemic." However, Husseini didn’t see it
that way, trivializing Fumento’s "cheerful spin" on the situation by
saying he ignored two important "facts": 1) the role of protease
inhibitors as a major factor in the decrease in new AIDS cases; but 2)
no decrease in the number of newly infected people per year (40,000
and holding steady.)
First, Fumento stated in a letter to the Wall Street Journal
(February 17, 1998) that "AIDS clearly began peaking well before the
use of current drug therapies." We agree. Yearly total AIDS cases were
on the decline by mid 1995, although protease inhibitors were not
introduced until 1996 (RA, Dec. 1996). Second, as Fumento has
pointed out ("Dealing with good news," Philanthropy Magazine, Jan-
Feb 2000), any figures giving numbers of HIV infections are pure
speculation: "The CDC has used an estimate of 40,000 for several
years now, though it has never explained the methodology behind
that figure." And since all other STDs are declining, it makes no sense
that HIV infection should be escalating. In addition, the gross inaccuracies
of HIV antibody tests [as detailed in Johnson’s previous
work and that of the Perth Group] would invalidate any conclusions
based on testing data. ["What you don’t know can make you ‘HIVpositive’:
Factors known to cause false-positive HIV antibody tests."
Johnson, Zenger’s. Sept 1996; "Is a positive Western Blot proof of HIV
infection?" Eleopulos et. al, Bio/Technology 1993, 11:696.]
Husseini invites us to look at the CDC’s statistics and "bother
doing the math." This is exactly what Fumento has been doing all
along, yet Husseini interprets the statistics quite differently, letting his
emotions hold sway over dispassionate analysis of the numbers. For
instance, Fumento was criticized for pointing out the media’s obsession
with AIDS among teenagers (citing such headlines as "AIDS
runs wild among teenagers," and "Devastating spread of AIDS among
US teenagers."). Contrary to these inflammatory headlines, teen
AIDS accounted for only 0.06% of all cases in 1998. The total number
was 297 cases, 68 of which were classified as due to heterosexual
exposure. (It’s interesting to note that 61 cases were female and 7
Husseini discounts Fumento, stating: "Of course there are relatively
few teens with AIDS, since it generally takes about 10 years for
the disease to develop." By invoking a 10-year-plus "latency period,"
Husseini puts himself into a logical vise, since any teen AIDS cases
would represent infections at ages 3 to 9 years old. If these infections
represented mother-to-infant HIV transmission, then by now we
should be seeing an increase in pediatric AIDS (ages 1-12) as well as
an increase in teen AIDS. Neither is the case, as total cases in both
these categories are declining (from low numbers to even lower numbers:
Pediatric cases declined from 992 in 1994 to 322 in 1999. Teen
cases declined from 439 in 1994 to 265 in 1999.)
Even if these cases were due to sexual molestation by infected
October 2000 Rethinking AIDS page 2
adults, they hardly make a case for a burgeoning heterosexual epidemic,
since only 5% of male teen AIDS cases are attributed to heterosexual
contact and 40% of female cases.
MISUSE OF STATISTICS
Husseini seems alarmed by the fact that the percentage of AIDS cases
attributed to heterosexual contact is greater among teens (23%) than
among adults/adolescents in general (14%). This supposedly suggests
that "down the line AIDS contracted via heterosexual contact will
continue to constitute a greater portion of the total." First of all, we
are already "down the line" and the numbers of cases in all categories
are decreasing. Second, even in the unlikely event that 100% of new
cases were attributable to heterosexual infection, with total cases
decreasing, this would not represent a heterosexual epidemic raging
out of control, but rather an epidemic. in decline
While the percentage of AIDS cases attributed to heterosexual
contact has been slowly increasing (from 10% in June 1994 to 15% in
June 2000), the total numbers in this category have been slowly
decreasing (from 8,296 in June 1994 to 6,773 in June 2000).
AIDS authorities play loose with legitimate statistics, but here are
two things to keep in mind: (1) a large percentage of a small number
is still a small number; and (2) an increasing percentage of a decreasing
total will eventually represent a decreasing number.
Juggling percentages doesn’t make an epidemic out of thin air.We
suspect that if there were only one AIDS case this year, and next year
it increased to two cases, someone would be ringing the alarm bells
about a "100% increase in AIDS cases." True enough, but two cases is
hardly a threat to the health of the nation.
A MORE RADICAL VIEW
While Fumento points out the low numbers of AIDS cases claimed to
be heterosexually acquired, his work doesn’t deal at all with the substantial
body of literature that, when combined, would suggest that
heterosexual transmission is next to impossible. At the very least,
there is no definitive scientific proof that it takes place.
Nancy Padian is a well-known researcher of HIV transmission
between discordant couples. Her oft-cited 1991 study ("Female-tomale
transmission of HIV," JAMA) showed only one case of transmission
from an infected female to her male partner, among 71 couples
practicing unprotected sex.
This woman, however, reported over 600 male sex partners, over
3000 acts of intercourse with men in AIDS risk groups (a bisexual, an
IVDU, and a man known to be HIV positive). She experienced multiple
STDs and gynecological surgery. She would have sex with
another partner while her husband watched, and then had sex with
her. Over 100 episodes of vaginal or penile bleeding occurred
between them. According to insurance industry actuary Peter
Plumley’s analysis of this case ("An actuarial analysis of the AIDS epidemic
as it affects heterosexuals," Transactions, 1992), Padian suggested
that the husband’s "HIV infection may have come from one of
the other men who had sex with his wife immediately prior to his
sexual activity, rather than from his wife." This situation is in no way
representative of the average non-risk-group heterosexual couple’s
risk of HIV infection, and certainly no conclusive female-to-male
transmission took place during this study.
In addition, Padian’s latest estimates of female-to-male HIV transmission
put the odds at 1 per 8,000 unprotected contacts. [She puts
the odds of male-to-female transmission at 1 per 1,000.] (Am. J.
Epidemiology, 146:350, 1997). At this rate, if the average couple has
sex three times per week, it would take 51 years for a man to acquire
HIV from his female partner. Thus women act as a "firebreak" which
prevents any type of heterosexual epidemic from taking off.
Stuart Brody, a clinical psychologist and expert at risk factor
analysis, stated in his 1997 book Sex at Risk, "The risk of transmitting
HIV through vaginal intercourse is near zero among healthy adults."
Brody contends that the two established routes for HIV transmission
are intravenous activity and anal intercourse: "…the frequency of
vaginal intercourse does not correlate with HIV seroconversion" but
anal intercourse does. ("Sex, lies, and HIV transmission," RA, Dec 1997).
Even such mainstream publications such as the Journal of the
American Medical Association have recognized that standard advice to
reduce HIV infection risk (fewer sex partners, monogamy, use of
condoms and so on) is wrong-headed. In 1988 Hearst asked, "Are we
giving our patients the best advice?" (259:16), pointing out that "the
single most important recommendation" would be to "avoid choosing
a sexual partner who may be at high risk of carrying HIV."
Hearst’s figures show that a single unprotected encounter with a person
of unknown sero-status would have the following likelihood of
resulting in HIV infection: If that person is not in any high-risk
group, the risk is 1 in 5,000,000; if the person is in a risk group, the
risk dramatically increases to between 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000.
Where the partner is known to be HIV negative, one unprotected
encounter with a non-risk-group person carries a risk of 1 in
500,000,000, whereas if the HIV-negative partner is practicing continuing
high-risk behavior, the risk escalates to 1 in 50,000.
Another problem with claims of heterosexual transmission is that
public health departments must rely on self-reporting by the person
with AIDS. On the initial questionnaire, a person may claim heterosexual
transmission, but on aggressive re-interviewing (which is not
often done) many people recant and admit to sex with someone in a
risk group (e.g., men will admit to homosexual contact). Social scientists
are well aware of a phenomenon called "socially desirable
responding," a polite name for old-fashioned lying. ("Lying to military
physicians about risk factors for HIV infections," JAMA 1987,
258:1727; Plumley 1992; Brody, 1997).
This implies that people will answer sensitive or embarrassing
questions in such a way as to put themselves in a more favorable light.
As Plumley explains, "Seldom would anyone have reason to conceal
his heterosexuality. However, the likelihood of someone hiding his
homosexuality or IV drug use is significant [as] these lifestyles are
condemned by a large part of our society…" (Plumley 1992). As for
anal intercourse, it is neither admitted to nor asked about (Brody
1997). [For a detailed analysis of how researchers come to conclusions
which ignore the data, see RA December 1997.] Brody concludes
that "the rare seroconversion observed in HIV coitus transmission
studies represents participants who have not been forthright
in their self-appraisal of risk exposure, or who have not been asked
the specific questions that would have identified their risks." He considers
receptive anal intercourse and IV exposure to account for all
cases listed as heterosexually acquired.
Ukrainian scientist and HIV-AIDS critic Vladimir Koliadin says,
"Although transmission of HIV is widely accepted as [fact], it has
never been proven by rigorous methods. The belief in transmission
of HIV rests on several logical flaws in interpretation of some epipage
3 Rethinking AIDS October 2000
demiological observations and studies" (koliadin@websp.
AFRICA: A CASE FOR HETERO TRANSMISSION?
Husseini uses the situation in Africa to support his view, but he does
not deviate from the conventional wisdom in terms of the gross inaccuracy
of his information. Husseini claims that "every day, Africa
buries now 5500 of its sons and daughters who have died from
AIDS." This frightening statement has nothing to do with reality.
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) AIDS statistics,
the cumulative total of reported AIDS cases in Africa, over the
last 19 years, is only 794,444 (compared to 717,430 for the United
States). Husseini’s factoid of almost 2 million African AIDS deaths
per year is more than double the number of reported cases for 19
years! Surely if these millions of dead bodies were actually there,
someone would notice and report them to WHO. In fact, all information
on AIDS numbers in Africa is based on estimates and not
facts, and nothing is increasing in Africa except the degree to which
WHO’s estimates are inflated every year. Husseini claims "the vast
majority of this toll stems from heterosexual transmission." Fumento
would say a more likely explanation would be the widespread use and
re-use in many poverty-ridden areas of unsterile needles for vaccinations
and transfusions (see, The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS). Brody
states this "effectively places the African patient in a situation not
unlike that of IV drug users anywhere sharing unsterile hypodermic
equipment" (Brody 1997). This is coupled with a nonspecific clinical
case definition which can easily end up mis-diagnosing many common
African diseases as AIDS. In addition, HIV antibody tests are
rarely used to diagnose AIDS in Africa, and when they are, it must be
noted that any number of African diseases can cause false positives
(Johnson 1996). The situation in Africa is so hopelessly confounded
that any AIDS diagnosis is suspect.
Fumento comments that we are told of third world cases "in such
specific terms that one would think the victims had walked through
a turnstile with a counter.Yet these are all estimates, and the estimates
are from organizations that are given funds if they declare there’s
more AIDS" (Fumento 2000).
SHORT-CHANGING OTHER DISEASES
Fumento’s work pretty much sticks to a "just the facts, Ma’am,"
analysis of statistics from the CDC. This in itself seems to pose a
threat, as Fumento. help but draw some obvious inferences from the
data. For instance, he has spoken out against what he considers to be
an outrageously overblown and unjustified AIDS budget ("Are We
Spending Too Much on AIDS?", Commentary, Oct 1990; "The
squeaky wheel gets the grease," American Spectator, Dec 1998). For
example, the NIH budget allocated $70,000 for each AIDS deaths in
1997, but only $5,000 for cancer and less than $2000 for heart disease.
(The number of annual AIDS death is less than 8% of cancer deaths
and less than 4% of deaths from heart disease.) Fumento wonders,
"[if] a rapidly growing epidemic was an excuse for a rapidly growing
budget, shouldn’t a rapidly shrinking epidemic prompt reallocation
of funds? Shouldn’t it be of import that AIDS now kills about as
many persons in a year as cancer kills every twelve days?"
FAIR’S AIDS COVERAGE SO FAR
FAIR has thus far been unable to see beyond the superficial dogma of
"conventional wisdom" on AIDS, very little of which is backed up by
Writing in the Arizona Republic in 1993, FAIR regulars Jeff Cohen
and Norman Solomon lambasted Cosmopolitan magazine for its
"irresponsible" and "deadly" practice of letting women know they
could enjoy sex without the terror of "heterosexual AIDS." Cosmo
correctly reported "There is almost no danger of contracting AIDS
through ordinary sexual intercourse" ("Reassuring news about AIDS:
A doctor tells why you may not be at risk," February 1988; "AIDS:
The real story about risk," March 1992). Cohen and Solomon lump
Cosmo in with Patrick Buchanan, who "for ideological reasons" has
also "denied the reality that AIDS puts most people at risk."
Husseini takes an equally antagonistic tone toward Fumento,
seeming to read his position as some right-wing attack on the liberal
ideal of defending underdogs such as, in this case, gays, blacks, and
Hispanics, who make up a preponderance of AIDS cases.
Fumento’s work has mostly appeared in conservative periodicals
such as The National Review and Commentary, and Fumento’s other
right-wing affiliations, including his present position as senior fellow
with the Hudson Institute, lead Husseini to dub him a "virtual poster
child for what right-wing institutions can foster.”
To the contrary, Fumento is no mouthpiece for right-wing agendas.
Soon after joining the US Commission on Civil Rights, Fumento
realized conservatives were using the AIDS epidemic to further their
own anti-sex and anti-gay agenda. Fumento criticized the right-wing
objective of "[restoring] traditional sexual morality" by "[distorting]
the true nature of the epidemic" (The New Republic, August 8 & 15,
1988). He stated, "It is dishonesty that underlies the entire moralistic
scheme to exaggerate the heterosexual AIDS problem. Frustrated
with the failure of the message ‘Sex will cost you your soul,’ the
moralists have cynically replaced it with ‘Sex will cost you your life.’"
After The New Republic article, Fumento was demoted, relieved of
his AIDS duties, and warned not to talk to reporters about it. His
adherence to honesty about AIDS risks has made him a very unpopular
guy who has made enemies on both ends of the political spectrum.
Gay activists have targeted him and issued death threats to
those who publish his work. After the publication of his book, he was
"summarily fired from his job as an editorial writer at Denver’s Rocky
Mountain News and spent two years unemployed" ("Beat the press:
Death threats and bullying tactics follow AIDS journalists who contradict
the conventional wisdom," Kaufman, Washington Monthly,
March 1993). Fumento’s book was suppressed and he is "routinely
called a racist and a homophobe in print." Gina Kolata of The New
York Times and Dan Lynch of the Albany Union Times have received
similar treatment for not toeing the line on AIDS.
RA has reported across a spectrum of AIDS dissidents. It would be
fair to say that Fumento is among the least radical of them, as he
believes that HIV is the cause of AIDS (see: "Heretic: Rethinking
AIDS," Commentary, July 1993, and "A complicated disease won't
have simple answers," Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1992).
Yet FAIR’s response to Fumento clearly demonstrates a profound
lack of tolerance to even the slightest deviation from the establishment
PROGRESSIVES WON’T QUESTION AIDS DOGMA
The Fumento controversy can be seen as part of a larger issue—the
relationship between science, politics, journalism and public policy.
Fumento argues that science has become increasingly politicized,
leading to faulty findings that are accepted as fact by uncritical journalists.
The result is a misinformed public, misplaced priorities and
page 4 Rethinking AIDS October 2000
Mission Statement of the Rethinking AIDS Group
1 To develop, articulate, and promote rational scientific discourse on the subject
of HIV and AIDS.
2 To advocate the absolute right of students, professors, physicians, scientists,
government officials, and everyone else to think freely and speak openly
on the subject of HIV and AIDS without fear of professional, social, political,
economic, or criminal penalties.
3 To assemble scientists, physicians, and other informed people who support
rational, open scientific discourse on the subject of HIV and AIDS, and
make those persons available for commentary and consultation to interested
social groups, media outlets, government agencies, professional organizations,
is the monthly publication of the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of AIDS, also
known as the Rethinking AIDS Group.
The Rethinking AIDS Group Board of Directors
Roberto A. Giraldo (President) MD; Infectious Disease Specialist; NY City
Paul Philpott (Editor) MS, Mech. Engineering; Detroit
David Rasnick PhD, Chemistry; BS Biology; Visiting Scientist; UC-Berkeley
Charles A. Thomas, Jr. PhD, Biochemistry; Prof. (ret.) Med., Harvard; San Diego
Harvey Bialy PhD, Biology; Editor-at-Large, Nature Bio/Technology; Mexico
Celia Farber Writer, Gear magazine; New York City
Russell Schoch Editor, California Monthly; Berkeley
Tom Bethell Washington (DC) Correspondent of The American Spectator
Charles Geshekter PhD, African History; Prof., Cal. State Univ.; Chico, CA
Gordon Stewart MD; Public Health, Epidemiology; Prof. (emer., ret.), Glasgow U.
Peter H. Duesberg PhD, Biology; Nat'l Acad. Sciences; Prof., UC-Berkeley
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John Lauritsen Market Researcher/Analyst (ret.); Author; Journalist; Cape Cod, MA
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Copy Editors: Christine Johnson and Rodney Knoll
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misguided public policy.
It would be naive to assume that science can or should exist in a
political vacuum. Policy advocates have always turned to science to substantiate
their claims. In and of itself this is not a bad thing, and at
times, has led to positive results. For example, regulation of the tobacco
industry has its origins in research that demonstrated the harmful
effects of smoking. In the 1950's, civil rights attorneys drew on social
science research to demonstrate the detrimental effects of segregation
on the education of minority children.
Of course, on politically charged issues both sides will engage in a
certain amount of selective perception in order to buttress their claim.
This can lead to bias, both in the research itself and its intended audience.
(An example of this problem is when research indicates that there
may be a biological basis for some male-female behavioral differences.
Such findings are applauded by cultural conservatives and denounced
by feminists. This exemplifies how scientific facts can be used as political
On an issue like AIDS the conflict intensifies. The disease has taken
a tragic toll on the gay community. As a marginalized group, victimized
by discrimination past and present, gays are angered by arguments that
appear to minimize the impact of AIDS on the rest of society.
Arguments like Fumento's—that AIDS does not pose a threat to the
heterosexual majority—seem to gays like just another way for heterosexuals
to disavow concern for them. It is then tempting to
lump Fumento, a political conservative, with ultra-conservatives
like Pat Buchanan who not only realize that AIDS is confined to
certain groups, but characterize it as God's retribution against
members of those groups. But Buchanan's position is not
Fumento's, nor ours.
The thrust of Fumento's argument is that the facts compel us
to confine our profile of AIDS victims to certain high risk groups.
This is not an argument to take the disease lightly. That the victims
of prostate cancer are exclusively male does not lessen societal
concern. Indeed, it could be argued that at least part of the concern
for AIDS is that it does disproportionately affect a minority
group that historically has been treated unjustly.
Contrary to what is implied by Husseini, questioning the conventional
wisdom regarding AIDS is not incompatible with actively
supporting gay rights and other progressive causes. Similarly,
true compassion for the victims of AIDS does not include inciting
the fears of those not really at risk.
Politics can make strange bedfellows. Today progressives from
the labor and environmental movements find themselves in a tactical
alliance with populist conservatives in opposition to what
both groups perceive as the excesses of globalism.
Certainly we would clash with Fumento on a variety of issues;
however, like many other liberals in the RA movement, we align
with Fumento on the issue of heterosexual AIDS. Fumento's conservative
politics do not invalidate the accuracy of his reporting on
FAIR should live up to its own mission statement and examine
the profound bias and censorship exercised towards contrarian
AIDS reporting. In short, FAIR's attack is unfair.
Christine Johnson is a medical editor and science writer
based in Los Angeles (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Steven Kurvink, PhD, teaches political science at
California State University, Fullerton (skurvink@fullerton.