Nova, HEAL Thyself

Members of a student group insist bad behavior, not HIV, causes AIDS, and that controversial message is testing academic freedom

Kai Thorup sees himself as a victim of a vast conspiracy. The 27-year-old Nova Southeastern University sophomore claims that school officials are trying to stop him and his small band of true believers, a student group called Health Education AIDS Liaison (HEAL), from telling the world the truth about AIDS.

In his view school administrators tried to block HEAL from bringing a Nobel Prize-winning scientist to campus to deliver HEAL's hugely controversial message: that AIDS is not caused by an infectious virus transmitted through sex and blood. Thorup claims that university employees have ripped down HEAL fliers, other students tried to block his group from participating in the annual AIDS quilt project, the student radio station refused to interview HEAL speakers, and his university job as a records coordinator was threatened.

Thorup and his crew of about 30 have clearly exasperated administrators, faculty, and fellow students at Nova with their two-year crusade to spread their gospel. These students, like their counterparts nationally, have effectively kept critics on the defensive by accusing them of trying to stifle their free speech rights and interfere with the cherished principle of academic freedom. That tactic has rallied Nova faculty and students -- even many who are highly skeptical of HEAL's message -- behind HEAL, which claims it has 52 chapters around the world, including one at Florida State University.

Last month 400 students signed a petition backing HEAL's request to invite the Nobel laureate Kary B. Mullis, who will speak on February 11 on the subject "HIV Equals AIDS: Where's the Evidence?" The Nova Southeastern faculty council unanimously affirmed the group's right to invite Mullis.

But evidence for Thorup's censorship charge at Nova is scant. If HEAL is being censored, one would question why the student government is shelling out $8000 to enable the brilliant but flaky Mullis -- a chemist who has no particular expertise in medicine, virology, or epidemiology -- to make scientifically unsupportable statements like, "There is simply no scientific evidence demonstrating that... AIDS is a disease caused by a virus called HIV."

Norma Goonen, dean of the Farquhar Center, Nova's liberal arts school, denies any censorship attempt. At most, one administrator suggested that a speaker with a mainstream scientific perspective be added to balance Mullis' presentation. "It was suggested that whenever possible, students and others should be exposed to several opposing points of view," she says. "That's a long stretch from saying we're restricting someone's freedom to speak."

Even faculty members supportive of HEAL's free-speech rights don't see censorship at work. "Some administrators asked whether the school should put out $8000 to bring a Nobel laureate to campus to discuss a topic that's not really related to his Nobel Prize," says Barry Barker, an assistant professor of environmental science. "But the faculty discussed this, and 100 percent reaffirmed the idea of academic freedom. So it's a nonissue."

If anything, the threat to academic freedom comes more from HEAL. It has intimidated some who disagree with the group's message. Ben Mulvey, director of the liberal arts department and one of those who was critical of HEAL, urged a reporter to downplay his involvement with the Mullis issue. "Otherwise I'll get besieged by zealots," he fretted.

HEAL members have twice tried to silence views that differ from theirs, says Stephen Fallon, education director for CenterOne, a local AIDS service agency that shares the view of all reputable AIDS researchers that HIV causes AIDS. He says that when he spoke on campus last November, HEAL members shouted him down. The year before, they tried to lead Fallon out of the room when he posed tough questions to a HEAL speaker. Thorup denies the latter charge, and isn't sure of the former. "We welcome debate," Thorup says. But HEAL just happened to schedule the Mullis lecture on the same night as a major local AIDS conference aboard a cruise ship -- which guarantees that Fallon and other mainstream experts won't be on hand to debate Mullis.

Thorup got started on his crusade several years ago when his friend, an intravenous drug user, was suffering from AIDS. He researched the disease and came across the shocking revisionist view of a molecular biologist named Peter Duesberg, who argues that there's no proof that AIDS is caused by an infectious agent called human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Thorup tried in vain to convince his friend's mother that the young woman's drug therapy was the true cause of her illness and that she should stop it. His friend died, but Thorup vowed to save other AIDS patients. "The people who are dying don't need to die," says Thorup, who rejects the established view that HIV and AIDS are passed through shared needles and sex as a conspiracy among scientists and doctors to hide the truth.

But who's really the conspiracy victim here? Under the high-minded banner of open scientific inquiry, Thorup and his comrades in HEAL chapters across the country promote the idea that AIDS patients, particularly gay men, the poor, and minorities, are responsible for their own misery. Taking their lead from the controversial Duesberg, HEAL members expound the scientifically unfounded theory that bad lifestyle choices, particularly recreational drug use, promiscuous sex, and poor nutrition -- plus the AIDS drugs doctors prescribe to make themselves rich -- are the true culprits, not HIV. In the HEAL members' view, these factors weaken the immune system and bring on AIDS. HEAL contends promiscuity and drug use in themselves cause the disease, not HIV transmission related to those practices. Therefore, taking precautions like practicing safe sex, using clean needles, and screening blood supplies are useless in preventing AIDS, they say.

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