Nova, HEAL Thyself

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

This message alarms many scientists and public health workers, particularly when it's aimed at impressionable young people already prone to risky behavior. "There will be some percentage of people who get the message that unprotected sex must be OK," worries Barker, the Nova assistant professor.

Like Thorup, Mullis, who won the 1993 Nobel for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction for rapidly reproducing DNA, also feels persecuted by a conspiracy of knaves and fools. He compares himself to Galileo, who was pressured to recant his discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun. In a rambling article in Penthouse magazine last September, Mullis claimed that he doesn't believe in moral finger-pointing and doesn't know what causes AIDS -- only what doesn't. With hardly a pause, he goes on to blame promiscuous gay male sex, drug use, and zidovudine (also called azidothymidine or AZT) for the disease. This may smack of hypocrisy coming from someone who admitted that he used lots of drugs and was very promiscuous until his recent fourth marriage.

What's the appeal of HEAL's message? Even though overwhelming evidence points to the human immunodeficiency virus as the cause of AIDS, there are distressing gaps in knowledge about the disease and how to treat it. Given the fatal nature of AIDS, its daunting complexity, the connection to sex, and the absence of a cure or vaccine, many people for psychological reasons try to deny its existence or find sinister explanations for its origin. This is fertile ground for wacky conspiracy theories.

In 1987 Duesberg, a leading expert on retroviruses at the University of California-Berkeley, touched a spark to this volatile mix by publishing a paper arguing that HIV isn't the cause of AIDS. He turned out to be right about some things, such as that the drug AZT wasn't the miracle AIDS cure it was touted to be. But mounting evidence from the last several years, based on new ways of examining DNA and measuring HIV in the bloodstream, have fatally undercut Duesberg's basic contention. The data show that the more HIV a patient has, the greater the chance that he or she will die of AIDS. Contrary to the claims of Duesberg disciples, their master's views have been convincingly rebutted in the mainstream scientific press, notably in a broad review of the evidence in the December 9, 1994, issue of Science.

Even a nonexpert can see that the Duesberg/Mullis theory of AIDS causation is full of holes. Many people with HIV and AIDS credibly say that they haven't practiced the "bad" lifestyles that the two men say cause AIDS. These include the spouses of HIV-positive intravenous drug users, as well as health care workers who contracted HIV after a needle-stick injury. Did they all lie about not shooting drugs or having promiscuous sex? And what about babies with AIDS born of mothers carrying the virus?

"HEAL offers no evidence that everyone dying of AIDS used drugs," notes CenterOne's Fallon. "They say a lot of them were, and the rest must be lying. It's a blame-the-victim ideology."

HEAL members insist that their agenda isn't ideological or religious. Maybe not, but several HEAL members interviewed expressed a wide-ranging distrust of all authorities and a belief that personal discipline solves all problems. Shannon Falzone, the group's acting president, says she got involved because of the distrust she developed toward doctors during a recent medical episode. "I don't believe in any drugs," says the 24-year-old junior. "If you're sick, stay in bed and rest and you'll get better." Would she take antibiotics if she got syphilis? "I believe in emergency situations, and antibiotics are a good resource. But I'd never put myself in the position of getting VD."

Another member, who didn't want to be identified, says HEAL's message fits neatly with his decision to become a Christian and end his homosexual "lifestyle" through the controversial Worthy Creations ministry of the Coral Ridge Church. "Gay-rights activists don't want to be responsible for their lifestyle choices," this member says. "Taking responsibility is what attracts me to HEAL."

College students are adults, and few are likely to run out and have unprotected sex because of one lecture -- even if it is given by a handsome, charismatic Nobel Prize winner who is telling them not to worry about HIV for scientific reasons they can't possibly understand. Barry Barker is nervous, though. "I sure hope that when Mullis shows up, there are knowledgeable people in the audience who can ask intelligent questions that present the other side of the story. Otherwise people may walk out believing that everything is a conspiracy."

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address:

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