Anniversary of the "Duesberg hypothesis"

The Duesberg hypothesis

Death by denial

The Guardian, Notes from the Science Desk

February 21 2012

Brian Deer

Karri Stokely is a poster girl for a different way to look at health. After receiving an Aids diagnosis in 1996, at the age of 29, she was treated for 11 years with a cocktail of drugs.  But then she saw an internet video saying that HIV was a hoax, stopped taking her medicines - and felt terrific.

“I’m not getting any answers from the mainstream as to why I’m healthy, and why my husband is negative, and why I can quit these drugs,” she explains in another video, currently being promoted online. “I think it’s a crime.  It’s crimes against humanity.”

Her doctors were aghast over their  patient going awol. HIV treatment is for life. “He looked me right in the eyes and said ‘You have done a very stupid thing, and you will be dead very soon,’” Stokely recalls. “My response to him was: ‘That’s funny, because right now I’m feeling pretty good.’”

That was in April 2007.  She died four years later.  Her comments are a postcard from the past. “Karri Stokely passed away on April 27th 2011,” explains a website run by London journalist Joan Shenton. “She said she wouldn't go quietly so we are keeping her moving interview below on our homepage.”

But Stokely’s path (via pneumonia) was already well footprinted. Dying in denial is a phenomenon. The first traveller I knew was an American singer, Michael Callen, author of a self-help book, Surviving Aids. It was published by Harper Collins in 1990. Three years later, Mikey died.

Shenton’s site offers more - and she’s Britain’s premier critic of what she calls the “completely wrong” science of HIV. There are, for examples, the cases of Jody Wells and Huw Christie, the first and second editors of a fringe magazine, “Continuum”, who both chose life and found death. 

“We’re waking up to the truth and the more of us that survive and live on in health to beat the odds, the more the lie will be shown up for what it is,” Wells wrote in May 1994, 16 months before his cremation.

That was just before new therapies transformed life expectancy, and saw many young men who might have followed him up the chimney rise from their deathbeds and go dancing.

Shenton’s site also showcases material on Christine Maggiore, a Californian businesswoman who helped found an international group, now called “Alive and Well Aids Alternatives”.  That was before her 3-year-old daughter died of pneumonia, and, in 2008, she died herself.

“This was a woman of class, grace, integrity, and wisdom,” comments Stokely on an internet “memorial wall” put up after Maggiore’s funeral. “From the time we found out ‘the truth’ surrounding the Aids debacle, Christine had always made herself available for help and guidance.”

So far, so good.  Here are intelligent, well-educated, idealistic people who wrestle their freedom from the grip of morbid sickness, big pharma products and despair. There’s a heroic quality about storming towards your destiny, arms outstretched, eyes wide.

But how they assist their own cause is a question to ponder.  As scientific signals go, death is potent. And yet here’s Karri Stokely again on the front of another website, plus Maggiore who “died unexpectedly”.  

She had disseminated herpes, double pneumonia and candidiasis.  Died unexpectedly, my arse.

These crusaders’ passing, however, gives paradoxical power to those who ushered them along in their journey. Like many health and science cranks (and shrewd defence lawyers) those who persist in the assertion that Aids isn’t infectious brandish their embarrassments, thrust them in your face, before moving to the next level of denial.

“Karri is very important,” Shenton, who’s now archiving a quarter century of uninterrupted campaigning, assures me on the phone. “I think she died from the side-effects of the drugs. She’d stopped taking them, but she’d been taking them for about 10 years before.”

There’s no answer to that, of course, but while Shenton comes over as the queen of denial, its pharaoh has words on Maggiore. According to Peter Duesberg (pictured below), father of the philosophy, about 6% of deaths in the over 50s are from pneumonia, and “she is one of those,” he says.

“Big deal,” he snaps about her death, in a frankly barking podcast interview.  “It’s nothing.  It’s consistent with everything I know.”

Two weeks’ from now, Duesberg, 74, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, celebrates (and I have to suppose he will) 25 years of this stuff. For it was on 1 March 1987 that, in a 22 page paper, he set out his case that HIV is harmless.

“It is concluded,” he declared in the journal Cancer Research, “that Aids virus is not sufficient to cause Aids and that there is no evidence, besides its presence in a latent form, that it is necessary for Aids.”

Thus was born the “Duesberg hypothesis”, which his critics say led to sickness and death far beyond white, middle class eccentrics. Some reckonings claim that, in South Africa alone, the denialist convictions of former president Thabo Mbeki led to 300,000 premature fatalities and 35,000 preventable infant infections.

In fact, Aids denialism predates Duesberg’s inspiration.  It was born in the first months of the epidemic.  Even in 1981, when I wrote my first report, there were what I then  called “two competing hypotheses” for the disease, which had just been spotted by US government epidemiologists among East and West Coast gay men.

One proposed an infection, the other a crummy “lifestyle”.  And little has changed since then. Although science proved the first, the second limped on, blaming recreational drugs, pharmaceuticals and sexual practises in developed countries, plus  water, bugs and nutrition in Africa.

The website with Stokely and Maggiore on the front is “Rethinking Aids”, but as 25 years have been torn from the calendar, little has been rethought. They still say  HIV is harmless, or doesn’t exist, and that leading Aids scientists are “criminals”. Heterosexuals don’t get sick and millions of Africans aren’t infected. And there’s a global conspiracy to conceal this.

“My secret to staying healthy is really nothing magical,” explains Stokely, meanwhile, in her, perhaps eternal, message in a bottle. “I think a very, very large part of it, as with any diagnosis you get, is the biology of belief. The mind is very, very strong on the health of the human body.”

Brian Deer is the UK specialist journalist of the year.

The Guardian's published version contains slight text variations. In particular, the sentence, "Died unexpectedly, my arse" was deleted.

Science & research fraud
Dean of denialism: Peter Duesberg, the Berkeley scientist who leads claims that Aids is not caused by HIV

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