A Response to Celia Farber's Article in Harper's Magazine

Long-time AIDS activist Martin Delaney is the founding director of the AIDS organization Project Inform. He is one of a group of prominent AIDS advocates who have responded to an article written by Celia Farber in the March 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine_. In the article, entitled "Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science," Farber includes a sympathetic overview of the AIDS denialism movement, which claims that HIV does not cause AIDS and that HIV medications, not HIV itself, kills people. This message by Martin Delaney is one of many e-mails exchanged between AIDS activists in response to the Farber article._

To read other responses to the Farber article, and to learn more about AIDS denialism claims and rebuttals, visit aidstruth.org a site put together by AIDS researchers or browse through The Body's collection of articles.

People have been responding to Celia Farber's article for over a week. Several well-written letters have already gone to the editor [of Harper's].

The problem is that there isn't a single word that's new or previously unanswered in this ugly excuse for journalism. This is the same old crap that Farber has been peddling for years. She hasn't had an outlet for some time, but I guess she's been quiet long enough that there's a new generation of editors who are deaf, dumb and blind to the issues and who are thus susceptible to her message. As usual, she cites and quotes only the five or six fringe people, most of whom have been out of work for years and not one of whom has ever conducted a single page of actual AIDS research. These people are cranks, disgruntled losers who have been left behind by the tides of science.

The one thing that's different this time around is that Farber has managed to make a twisted weave of her usual denialist story combined this time with the threads of the tale of a disgruntled NIH [U.S. National Institutes of Health] employee who declared himself a "whistleblower" when he saw that he was about to be fired. He dredged up a pile of cheap shots that had been tossed at the Ugandan trial of nevirapine from several years ago, complaints which were little more than a reflection of the fact that running studies in contemporary African nations doesn't look exactly like running such trials in the high-tech world of the NIH. Some things weren't written down properly; paperwork isn't as precise as computer work; a team running studies for the first time lacks the precision of people working on their 20th or 30th major study. Scandal! Horrors! Poor Africans are being abused by the rich white doctors and profit-hungry drug companies!!! The whistleblower opens a Web site entitled "Honest Doctor."

Give me a break. Even Hollywood doesn't get quite this bad. The fact is that the study in question has been reviewed and re-reviewed up the ying-yang and has been declared sound, ethical, and critically important for slowing the transmission of HIV to newborns.

So what to do with Farber and her band of loonies? Succinct, point-by-point rebuttals have been done over and over and over again. I've done several myself. The NIH has done them. Other activists and doctors have done them. There is virtually nothing new to say. The success of the drugs used to treat HIV is so dramatic, so well demonstrated that it is the envy of just about every other major unsolved disease out there. It proved that spending big dollars on treatment research really pays off. Next, it showed that spending more then greatly simplified treatment, making it possible today for many people's treatment to be reduced to as little as a couple of pills taken daily. Soon, it will be a single pill, and not long afterwards we can expect to see effective treatment taken just once a week or perhaps even monthly -- if the research is sustained. If there is a failure of research, it is the lack of concentration on an outright cure. And, of course, the failure to come up with a vaccine, and the failure to make these treatments available worldwide.

Whatever the weaknesses of AIDS research or the failings of the pharmaceutical industry, they are none of the things cited in Farber's absurd tome. The woman has had her head buried in the sand for so long that she hasn't the faintest idea what is happening in the lives of people with AIDS. As Larry [Kramer] says [in an earlier e-mail], there is indeed still a major problem, but it is the problem of the continued spread of the disease and the continued failure to make the benefits of the last 20 years of research available to all. When someone dies of AIDS these days who has had access to therapy, we understand why and how it can be prevented.

That's a huge, profound change from the agony, pain and uncertainty people faced in years past. The issues raised by Farber and her three stooges are a complete and utter diversion. Follow her, listen to her, and we will head right back to the disastrous conditions of the late 1980s and 1990s. One cannot help but wonder what their real motive is, since their primary activity is to try to turn people away from the things that have been proven to work, while supporting nonsense that has been left behind.

Yes, I hope Larry is right that there might be a way to turn around, though it won't be found in Farber's words. It will be found in concentrating on the major tasks that lie before us: developing a vaccine, stopping the spread of the disease by all reasonable means, and making sure that the tens of millions presently infected with HIV have access to the great successes achieved by science in the last 20 years.