In the opening to her book The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, Nicoli Nattrass discusses how she became interested in AIDS conspiracy theories.
The Conspiratorial Move Against HIV Science and Its Consequences
Most people do not believe conspiracy theories about the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). But suspicions that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may have been created in a laboratory, and that the pharmaceutical industry invented AIDS as a means of selling toxic drugs, persist on both sides of the Atlantic. During the 2008 US presidential campaign, Barack Obama had to deal with politically embarrassing revelations that his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, believed the government had created HIV to harm blacks. Four years earlier, the Nobel Prize–winning Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai stunned the world with her casual observation that HIV had been “created by a scientist for biological warfare.” Most tragically, conspiracy theories about HIV were promoted in the early 2000s by then South African president Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang—with devastating consequences for AIDS policy.
AIDS conspiracy theories range from the claim that the HIV is a man-made bioweapon, to the “AIDS denialist” assertions that HIV is harmless and antiretroviral drugs themselves cause AIDS. Although very different, both theories make a “conspiratorial move” against HIV science by implying that scientists and clinicians have either been duped by, or are part of, a broader conspiracy to inflict harm. This, in turn, undermines trust in the scientific consensus on HIV prevention and treatment. A growing body of research shows that AIDS conspiracy beliefs in the United States and South Africa are associated with risky sex, with not adhering to antiretroviral treatment,and with not testing for HIV.
My interest in AIDS conspiracy theory was born in 1999–2000 when Mbeki questioned HIV science and claimed that the pharmaceutical industry was conspiring with the US government to inflict toxic drugs on Africans. He and Tshabalala-Msimang consequently delayed the use of antiretrovirals for both HIV prevention and treatment—causing literally hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths from AIDS. But the harm to public health was more insidious than this. By casting aspersions on medical science itself, a healing vacuum was created into which rushed alternative healers of all descriptions. The resulting confusion was reinforced by an international group of self-styled HIV “dissident” thinkers, some of whom were also associated with promoting alternative therapies. Contesting them (including as a founding member of the anti–AIDS-denial website www.aidstruth.org) was a painful lesson in the difficulties involved in countering the conspiratorial move against HIV science. This book is the product of my attempts to understand the nature of AIDS conspiracy beliefs, why they matter, and how to challenge them.