Nova, HEAL Thyself

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.

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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