"Hampered only by a lack of money." — Donald Francis
"From the start, AIDS has been a show business disease". —Luc Montagnier
"The world is dying of AIDS." —Playwright Larry Kramer
"Infotainment" is the buzzword for information packaged so that it attracts viewer interest. The evening news and popular science programs exemplify its adroit use. A concept driving infotainment was expressed long ago by H. L. Mencken, a publicist who entertained two generations with his sardonic wit. Mencken said that
"what ails the truth is that it is mainly uncomfortable, and often dull".
But infotainment need not be hedonic. Viewers have a hearty appetite for conflict, violence, personal threat. No news program is complete without them. Likewise with science. In the decades prior to the AIDS epidemic, science infotainment was replete with stories playing to the craving for calamity and enjoyment of the sense of personal threat. Fallout from nuclear testing, spring made silent by pesticides, overpopulation, nuclear winter, and the Greenhouse Effect are a few of the comprehensive doom scenarios that recruited large followings hungry for Apocalypse.
This curious hankering for threat is probably a first cousin to entertainments that feature the thrills of risk-taking and narrow escapes, such as bungy jumping, high-speed skiing, rock and mountain climbing, horror movies, sporting mayhem and so on. Social psychologist Irvine Schiffler calls these thrills the "charisma of hoax". Just as there is a little larceny in every heart, so Schiffler thinks that each of us is an actor fantasing a role in calamity play.
AIDS has been an unsurpassed show business disease because it dramatised cultural conflicts and rescued sexual expression from tedium by infusing it once again with danger. The amazing infotainment success of AIDS is best appreciated by considering how very dull the disease is when the gloss is removed. Unless you are a virus hunter or truth tracker, the real AIDS disease is unspectacular. Let's see just how everyday it is. The National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research provides the following data:
The rate of infection since the 1988 is estimated at 600 per year. The current infection rate is estimated at 3.5 new infections per 100,000 persons. 98% are male. Comparing AIDS as a cause of death with other causes, we find that in 1993 it was slightly more than the number of homicides, about a sixth the number of road fatalities, and about a fifth the number of suicides. It is not in the same league with cardiovascular disease (41,127 deaths, 1991) or cancer (31,284 deaths, 1991).
This profile holds right through OECD countries, albeit at lower rates than Australia. Germany, its population 80 million, had 9000 AIDS cases as of 1993, while at the same date the UK, with 57 million, had 7000 AIDS cases. Even in the US, where the incidence of the disease is highest, the annual mortality from AIDS is just over half the mortality from hospital-acquired infections. Yet there is no public outcry about the lethal hospital epidemic.
The virus is not a bushfire spreading through Australia or the Pacific region. The cumulative HIV+ diagnosis in the Western Pacific as of September 1993 is as follows:
|Hong Kong||289||New Zealand||884||Vietnam||792|
In Australia, the incidence of HIV infection is established on the basis of just over 1 million tests per year. The number diagnosed as HIV+ is steadily declining; currently it is about 600 per year.
These figures falsify three key premises of AIDS science. The first is the official line that AIDS is the most significant threat to the health of Australians. It is much less a threat than suicide. Another falsified premise is that the latency period of HIV is 10 years. If that were so, the annual number of new AIDS cases should be 0.10 x 17,568 = 1757. The actual number of new cases (about 350 per year) is indicative of a latency period of 50 years. This conundrum could be read another way. Assume that the 10-year latency period is correct. In that case the 75% who do not progress to AIDS in 10 years are false positives; that is, they test positive for HIV but do not carry the virus. For haemophiliacs, the false positive rate is even higher. Although 90% of this cohort test positive for HIV, only 0.06% progress to AIDS.
The impression that AIDS is the most significant threat to the health of Australians is due to the media appetite for calamity infotainment. Hyping is the accepted means of promoting research. Consider the current campaign to hype melanoma. The public have no interest in the private agendas of melanoma scientists. They do not care about the search for a predisposing melanoma gene or about a "vaccine" therapy for melanoma sufferers. These projects are costly (a single injection of the melanoma "vaccine" costs $100, 000) and interesting to scientists, whereas the prevention of melanoma is cheap and dull (just cover up). In order to pump up support for research, the public are fed scare stories. Consider the present push for melanoma research. We are told that the risk of getting melanoma doubled between 1980 and 1990. "That is really an absolute public health disaster," a breathless doctor exclaimed, "which is unmatched by any other malignancy and practically any other disease in Australia. If this rate continues, by the end of the 1990s we will have a melanoma incidence comparable with breast cancer."
That's an infomercial — a commercial presented as information. The creative challenge is to transform the uninteresting fact that people die into a gripping story that pumps up anxiety. The trick is to personalise the message: melanoma is coming after you — FAST. This anchors free-floating anxiety to a seemingly concrete, immediate threat (my sunburn). Melanoma isn't anyone's terminal illness of choice.
Histrionics have become so much a part of the science trade that scientists speak openly about it. Luc Montagnier told an interviewer that "the media and the public think of us [scientists] as a cross between magicians and movie stars". Not for him to disappoint the fans. Steven Schneider, a Greenhouse promoter, was frank about the science infomercial:
" Scientists should consider stretching the truth to get some broad base support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention about any doubts we might have . . . each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."
There you have it. You can't say that you haven't been warned. Big Science aggressively markets its goods and services using proven promotional methods. Again Luc Montagnier:
"I'm a gambler out for a big killing. Like a roulette player at the table, I'm addicted to getting results out of my laboratory . . . people are making major discoveries in other domains, but they receive none of the attention accorded to AIDS [scientists]".
AIDS has the pizzazz of a sex terrorist. The craving for risk, for danger as a stimulant, is apparent in the government's current Travel Safe campaign. Overseas travellers are handed an Australian National Council on AIDS glossy flier that announces "AIDS: A WORLD TRAVELLER". Its bland message reminds that the precautions urged domestically apply internationally. But travellers may also be handed other information that describes an alarming rise of HIV infection in Asia, especially Thailand and India. By the year 2000, 40% of the world's HIV infection will be in Asia; 15-22% of Thai sex workers are already HIV+; 30-60% of Indian sex workers are HIV+; 77% of the UK's heterosexually transmitted HIV was acquired overseas, and so on. The titillating message is clear. In the brothels of Bangkok, Calcutta and Manila, danger lurks for incautious Australian men. The effect of the story is heightened by not mentioning that the incidence of AIDS in Australia is far higher than in any Asian country. The entertainment version of this infotainment spectre was circulated through pubs in the early days of the epidemic. A joke tells about a businessman who took a Haitian beauty to bed. On waking in the morning, he found her missing; but written in lipstick on the mirror was the message: "Welcome to the World of AIDS".
Professor R. V. Short, a Monash University reproductive biologist concerned about overpopulation, recently speculated that the AIDS epidemic might prove to be the population crash we had to have. Luc Montagnier stated in a Le Monde interview that, "we will kill AIDS or it will kill us". In recent number of the Scientific American, Gerard Piel stated that "at its present rate of transmission, HIV will infect 200 million people by 2010. The African share of the casualties might then approach 100 million. "(p. 92).
The tide of doom reached its highwater mark between 1985 and 1987. It was as if scientists were in competition to launch the most titillating picture of impending disaster.
William Haseltine, Harvard AIDS scientist and collaborator with Robert Gallo, declared the epidemic to be
"major peril to our entire species. We haven't seen anything that we can't control except nuclear bombs, that's of this magnitude. We've got big problems".
Another Harvard scientist, Myron Essex, added the exhortation that
"we must act fast enough now so that we won't have 20-40 million Americans infected 5-10 years from now"
The action he indicated was unstinting funding of AIDS research. Dr Matilda Krim, Director of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute, a recipient of AIDS research dollars, likened AIDS to the 1918 influenza epidemic:
"In ten years it could affect even a million people [in the US]. Worldwide, it can be 10 million, 100 million. God knows."
Jerome Groopman, MD, yet another Harvard scientist, told a Discover Magazine reporter in 1986:
"This is much, much worse than anything I would ever have envisioned. To think there are going to be a quarter of a million people in the US alone with the disease by ."
(The actual 1991 figure was 46,986). Pulling out all the stops, Harvard celebrity Steven J. Gould told a New York Times reporter that AIDS might eventually reduce world population by 25%.
Why didn't credible health authorities calm the feeding frenzy? Because credible authorities instigated it. Consider this authoritative statement of the orthodoxy in Confronting AIDS (1986):
If the spread of the virus is not checked, the present epidemic could become a catastrophe. The Institute of Medicine-National Academy of Sciences Committee on a National Strategy for AIDS therefore proposes perhaps the most wide-ranging and intensive efforts ever made against an infectious disease . . . a massive, continuing campaign should begin immediately to increase awareness of the ways persons can protect themselves against infections.
The media loved it. Editors and television producers groomed their symbiotic relationship with experts. HIV mutated to the Media Transforming Virus. The more the media craved calamity, the more forthcoming scientists were. Big-name entertainers got into the act as well. Rock Hudson has been mentioned. Randy Shilts credits his celebrity with collaring free-floating anxiety and sympathy and directing it toward the disease. Benefit concerts and candlelight vigils were held. Comedians diverted audiences with AIDS jokes. Phil Donohue and Oprah Winfrey squeezed the story to the last tear. Oprah beguiled her viewers with a stupendous spectre:
"Research studies now project that one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years. That's by 1990. One in five. It is no longer just a gay disease. Believe me."
They loved it. Oprah knows entertainment.
America exported AIDs infotainment to Oz. Here is Glynns Bell in The Bulletin cover story of 17 March 1987.
He is a victim of the AIDS holocaust, a disease that is insidiously spreading through nearly every country in the world. Caused by a treacherous and slow-acting virus, it knows no national borders, no age or sex, no colour, creed or race. It has already infiltrated Australia and lies silently poised to strike at the heart and health of the country.
After pausing to note that this evocative image is discordant with the actual number of AIDS cases, Bell sugar-coated dull facts with an exciting fantasy:
"But the time bomb is ticking. Australia is counting down to the moment when AIDS stops being a localised firefight and, like herpes, become all-out warfare on the general population".
Our newspapers were an obliging conduit from the World Health Organisation's epidemic hyping. WHO created the monster figures on African AIDS by multiplying reported AIDS cases and infection by 100. Journalists were delighted at the prospect of catastrophe. Thus the Sunday Express, in 1986, reported excitedly:
"the deadly disease AIDS is now so out of control in black Africa that whole nations of people are doomed, leaving vast areas of now populated land devoid of a single living person within the next ten years".
The justification for balancing truth with effectiveness was what WHO AIDS director Jonathan Mann, MD, called the "hidden factor". The hidden factor is the AIDS cases not counted because they haven't been reported. African doctors didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this showmanship. After asking "Where are all the graves?" Dr. Konotey-Ahulu went on to pose a second question: "Why do the world's media appear to have conspired with some scientists to become so gratuitously extravagant with the untruth?"
Mann pontificated about Australia too. In 1987 he predicted 15,000 AIDS cases by 1991. The actual figure turned out to be about 1000. Mann has since left WHO for an AIDS post at Harvard, but his legacy lives on. WHO recently projected 120 million HIV+ persons world-wide by the year 2000. This figure is obtained by pumping up Asian infection rates in the same way that African AIDS was hyped. Its most recent extravaganza is a claimed sevenfold increase in the number of Asian AIDS cases in just one year.
Dr Gordon Stewart, an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow, made a study of WHO predictions and actual outcomes. He found that they erred from ten to a hundredfold. At the same time he made his own predictions based on the standard computation for viral contagion. His predictions match the data on AIDS cases and suggest, as Peter Duesberg has also suggested, that HIV is an old virus that long since reached stability in human populations. He writes:
"Nobody wants to look at the facts about the disease. It's the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen. I've sent countless letters to medical journals pointing out the epidemiological discrepancies and they simply ignore them . . . this whole heterosexual AIDS thing is a hoax."
Here are some of the facts supporting Stewart's case. In 1990-1, the number of confirmed female-to-male transmissions of HIV in New York was one. Since 1981, out of 30,943 cases of men with AIDS in New York, there are only 11 confirmed male-to-female transmissions. Africa is not dying of AIDS. In Uganda, of 1 million HIV+ persons, there are only 8000 AIDS cases; in Zaire there are 4636 cases for 3 million HIV+ persons. The cumulative total of AIDS cases for the African continent is 152,463 as of 1992. But we must bear in mind that African AIDS is clinically completely different from First World AIDS. The major categories are not PCP and KS, but traditional African illnesses such as tuberculosis, diarrhoea, and fever. There is no new mortality. A special definition of AIDS for Africa, the Bangui definition, greatly inflates the number of sicknesses counted as AIDS. The definition disassociates AIDS diagnosis from an HIV+ test. No wonder the continent seems to be swallowed by the epidemic.