There have been promising results from a recent trial of an HIV vaccine. An effective vaccine would be a useful part of our fight against AIDS related deaths. The new vaccine needs further trials, but in the study showed an 80% immune response, which is much better than previous attempts to create a vaccine. In brief, as I'm sure everyone knows, the HIV virus causes AIDS - Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - and it's this compromised immune system that can be fatal.
However, within conspiracy groups there's a belief that HIV either does not cause AIDS, or that it doesn't exist at all. Denialism started very early on, in 1984, with a paper published in the Journal of Psychohistory called "The Group-Fantasy Origins of AIDS". The idea, from author Casper Schmidt, was that AIDS was a form of mass hysteria, caused by social conflict. The paper argued that:
"the participants were the Moral Majority and an assortment of other conservative groups (as hunters) and the nation's drug addicts and homosexuals (as hunted). Both of these subgroups are acting out group sanctioned and group delegated roles, and these attacks have resulted in an epidemic of depression based mostly on shame. The core sign of AIDS, the reduction of cell-mediated immunity, is one of the typical vegetative signs of depression."
Mass hysteria is a fascinating topic, and skeptics have a keen interest in incidents of mass hysteria, as it can easily fool people - but in this case the paper was way off the mark.
Of course, some of the early questioning of the link between HIV and AIDS was necessary as part of the scientific process - but as time passed and the evidence for HIV and AIDS mounted, several individual researchers such as Peter Duesberg held on to their theories in the face of massive contrary evidence.
By 1998, denialism moved from the scientific literature to popular culture, with a book by Joan Shenton called
"Positively False – Exposing the Myths Around HIV and AIDS"
The arguments in this book were a departure from simply denying that HIV causes AIDS, instead claiming that the entire epidemic was faked by the pharmaceutical industry to make money.
Then in 2006 Celia Farber published an essay called:
"Out of Control: AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science"
If a disease like HIV were discovered today, I worry that the conspiracy theories about it being a made up disease would spread much quicker.
Of course, where there's denial of science and medicine, alternative therapies are not far behind. Several prominent deniers sell alternative treatments, such as Matthias Rath who sells vitamins and Gary Null who has a radio show and sells dietary supplements. Even Charlie Sheen has been treated with alternative therapies by a doctor in Mexico called Dr. Samir Chachoua:
The saddest part of HIV/AIDS denial is that it isn't restricted to fringe groups. South Africa has a history of promoting AIDS denial, and from 2000 the government promoted several AIDS deniers to the "Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel". The decisions that were made about treating or not treating people with AIDS are estimated to have caused an early death for over 300,000 people, although this number has been disputed.