Hatewatch

AFA’s Bryan Fischer: HIV Doesn’t Cause AIDS

It’s tempting to describe American Family Association spokesman Bryan Fischer as a close-minded, reactionary bigot. But when it comes to embracing fresh ideas that support his beliefs – heck, he pretty much outdoes us all.

Remember when he said that gays were responsible for the Holocaust? Or the time he claimed that states can require public officials to pass religious tests, directly contradicting both a 50-year-old Supreme Court decision and the express wishes of the Founding Fathers themselves? These are not exactly mainstream theories, but, ever open-minded, Fischer adopted them anyway.

And just when you think he’s reached the outermost limits of revisionism, Fischer one-ups himself by promoting a theory so breathtakingly outrageous that it makes his previous claims seem tame.

Well, he’s done it again, declaring during an anti-gay tirade on his radio show Tuesday that there is no connection between the HIV virus and AIDS.

He even had someone to back him up: Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley whose hypothesis about AIDS has made him a pariah among his peers.

Once revered as a genius for his pioneering cancer research, Duesberg since 1987 has been a leading proponent of the so-called “denialist” hypothesis that HIV does not cause AIDS. He offers a range of possible alternative causes, claiming at different times that AIDS is a “fabricated epidemic,” that it is triggered by the use of recreational drugs, and that it is caused by the antiretroviral drugs that have improved and prolonged the lives of countless HIV-infected persons.

That’s not what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

“The scientific evidence is overwhelming that HIV is the cause of AIDS,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, told Hatewatch via E-mail. “Infection with HIV has been the sole common factor shared by people with AIDS throughout the world. In addition, antiretroviral medicines developed specifically against HIV have been associated with dramatic reductions in the incidence of AIDS and mortality. Statements that AIDS is not caused by HIV are misleading and potentially dangerous.”

That seems an understatement. In 2000, Duesberg served on a commission charged by then-South African President Thabo Mbeki with determining whether HIV caused AIDS. Already inclined to disbelieve the connection, Mbeki accepted the conclusion that the two were not linked, leading to a disastrous public policy that caused an estimated 330,000 South Africans to die from AIDS, according to a 2010 report in AIDS and Behavior, a public health journal.

On Fischer’s show, Duesberg said that intravenous drugs are responsible for 50% of all cases of AIDS in America. “Most of the rest of the other half is male homosexuals – but not your all-American male homosexual from next door,” he said. “It’s the ones who have what they call ‘cruising,’ that have hundreds of – thousands of – sexual contacts in a short time. They can only accomplish that like our Olympians break records now, by taking lots of drugs.”

Fischer interviewed Duesberg in the context of discussing a proposed Los Angeles ordinance that would require performers in pornographic films to use condoms on the set.

Duesberg’s statistics – which suggest that half of AIDS patients are IV drug users and half are promiscuous gay men who use drugs to enhance their libido – do not quite square with reality. The CDC’s most recent statistics (here and here) do show that gay and bisexual men account for the majority of new HIV infections – 61% in 2009 – and that overall, 49% of Americans living with AIDS are gay or bisexual men. Neither numbers nor science say that all these men were drug-addicted sex fiends – and more to the point, 27% of those infected in 2009 were heterosexuals. Only 9% were IV drug users.

Asked to respond to the CDC’s statement about his hypothesis, Duesberg challenged the authority of the CDC, demanding evidence to back up this reporter’s characterization of the organization as an internationally recognized authority on epidemiology.

He also acknowledged that he had not heard of Bryan Fischer prior to speaking on his show. In response, Hatewatch provided him with several examples of Fischer’s most offensive and inaccurate anti-gay comments, reading verbatim his 2010 declaration that “Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews.”

Duesberg – who, according to a lengthy 2008 profile in Discover magazine, was born in Münster, Germany, in 1936 and grew up to the tune of air raid sirens, and whose father volunteered to serve in the German army – said he had never heard that theory before, and said he would need to see the context of Fischer’s comment before passing judgment. When Hatewatch forwarded him a link to Fischer’s original blog post, he responded via E-mail, “I am not ready to comment on Bryan Fischer at this time, beyond our radio discussion of AIDS until I had a chance to talk to him directly. I have seen too many examples, including my own, where a scientifically correct point of view is twisted into a politically incorrect one, to diminish an opponents [sic] character.”

He also wrote, “I do not ‘marginalize’ male or female homosexuals. On the contrary, I have sacrifized [sic] status and career investments to find a scientific answer to AIDS, which is primarily a gay syndrome in the US.”

Duesberg may not seek to marginalize LGBT people (though, according to the Discover article, he repeatedly referred to them as “homos”) – but Bryan Fischer certainly does. Summing up his takeaway from Duesberg in a blog post yesterday, he wrote, “Bottom line? HIV does not cause AIDS. So let’s immediately stop spending billions of dollars trying to kill a harmless microbe. And secondly, let’s tell homosexuals to stop sleeping with other men, stop using poppers, and stop shooting up. If they listen to that message, public health will improve, everybody will live longer, and taxpayers will be able to keep more of their money. What’s not to like?”

“That,” responded Brian Chase of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is pushing the condom ordinance, “might be one of the dumbest things Bryan Fischer’s ever said – and that is saying quite a bit.”