Things I really don't get: AIDS denialists (plus a bit about Oprah)

This is more a hat tip to a great article by the New Yorker's Michael Specter. In a recent issue, his piece "The Denialists" was published and it does a great job of providing the exasperating context to what is really a sad state of affairs in countries like South Africa.

Zeblon Gwala is a 50-year-old South African who sells ubhejane, an untested herbal remedy he claims will cure AIDS. On a typical day, as many as 100 people come to his clinic. Ubhejane has been endorsed by South African President Thabo Mbeki's health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, and by Herbert Vilakazi, the head of Mbeki's Presidential Task Team on African Traditional Medicine. Vilakaze believes that the toxicity of antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs-the only successful treatment for millions infected with H.I.V.-causes more harm than good. Like Mbeki himself, he's convinced that a cure for AIDS is more likely to be found in traditional African medicine rather than Western pharmaceuticals. AIDS denial plays a corrosive role in the health policies of many countries, but South Africa provides the most extreme and enduring example. Five and a half million of the country's 48 million people are infected by H.I.V. Today, only 200,000 receive AIDS drugs. In 2003, the South African government issued a comprehensive AIDS policy, but it wasn't implemented. Mbeki has never disavowed his view that H.I.V. medicines are aimed at maiming Africans, and he's never publicly acknowledged that H.I.V. causes AIDS. With government approval, clinics like Gwala's are thriving. (You can get the full article here)

In any event, this strikes me as yet another example of how mass media can turn a situation away from scientific concensus, and in doing so lead to potentially harmful and unethical situations.

It's ironic, but when I first read this, one of the things that immediately sprang to mind was the ubiquitous Oprah Winfrey and her efforts to set up a girls' school in South Africa. By the same token that degree of thought separation also led me to think about the Oprah endorsed book, "The Secret," a self-help manual (and DVD) that claims manipulation of "electromagnetism" via the power of positive thought (essentially an exercise that takes the notion of positivity squarely into the realm of quackery).

Does anyone else see the hypocrisy here?

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I'm working on a grand-unified-theory of cranks/denialists of all sorts.

From the writings of the HIV/AIDS denialists it seems to be about 10% paranoid personality disorder, 90% narcissism. In other words, they feel like they possess special or elite knowledge, or by virtue of believing something strange they are "iconoclasts".

With the HARM folks and the people who refuse to believe their own diagnosis, I think it's pretty classic denial.

You may find this article in the German news magazine "Der Spiegel" interesting:

THE QUACK IN GAMBIA: African Despot 'Cures' AIDS
The president of Gambia is causing a stir with his claim to be able to cure AIDS. Hardly anyone in the country dares challenge him and, unfortunately, many actually believe him.
(...) Dressed in white from head to toe, the head of state stands before his patients, mumbling prayers and waving the Koran. Then Jammeh rubs green glop on their skin, sprinkles them with gray liquid from an old Evian bottle and gives them something yellow to drink. Bananas -- administered orally -- round off the treatment. After repeating the procedure for several weeks, he proclaims the patients healed. All of them. Without exception. (...)
Jammeh explains that the method, based on the healing properties of seven herbs and Koranic prayers, is "foolproof." While he prefers to perform the healing sessions in public in front of TV cameras, he's willing to grant religious and social dignitaries private audiences.

You will find the rest here:,1518,470231,00.html