Enter the sceptics, and that chestnut, HIV statistics

1. a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions.

“Argh. A HIV/Aids sceptic has shown up at our monthly Skeptics in the Pub.”  #JacquesRossouw

For the record. I am not an HIV denialist, I am just sceptical when it comes to HIV statistics and AIDS dogma. In 2001 I was placed under discursive sanctions by the Cape Times after I published an op-ed on HIV Pathology and DNA testing, and no, it wasn’t because of this article, it was because my next article, unpublished, was about the inconvenient statistics part. We ended up with a media-managed “pandemic” and an HIV denialist President. The result is the liberal hellshow of Zuma and Malema

For example, the 2007 UNAIDS report estimated that 5,700,000 South Africans had HIV/AIDS, or just under 12% of South Africa’s population, which stood then at 48 million. Yes it is a large number, but no, it is nowhere near the 40-50% scare stories published by INM at the time the country was debating the issues after years of isolation from mainstream science. Was South Africa really the AIDS capital of the universe?

Lets look at the definition of a pandemic: panˈdɛmɪk adjective (of a disease) prevalent over a whole country or the world.

Read that again: Prevalent over a WHOLE country or the world,  Can one truly say that a 12% prevalence is the whole, i.e. 100%, Do you see the problem? Probably not, because merely questioning statistics of any kind sends off warning bells. Think for yourself, question authority.

Look at the conflicting reports. In 2006 the HIV prevalence rate among pregnant women in South Africa was said to be 29.1%.
According to the 2011 National Antenatal Sentinel HIV Prevalence Survey,  29.5% of pregnant women attending state clinics in 2011 were HIV-positive. Figures like these were often used to drive editorial at the Cape Times, and were compounded and inflated by open speculation. The higher numbers from state clinics were not compared to the lower numbers in private hospitals. The fate of the rich versus the fate of the poor played absolutely no part in the touting of South Africa’s ‘unique problem’.

The same survey for instance estimated that about 5.6-million people living in South Africa were HIV-positive. In other words, 12% of the population. The exact same UNAIDS figure. To put this in a better perspective, compare the prevalence rate amongst the 18-49 age group in the USA (0.6%) to South Africa (17.3%), representing a 11% variance between the developed and developing world, nothing like the 50% death rate etched into the minds of the critics of the Mbeki administration resulting in the necessity to “deflect attention” towards the politically expedient view  that AIDS is the result of “poverty, chronic disease,malnutrition and other environmental factors”.

Mbeki based his views on the discredited beliefs of AIDS denialists, especially that of Peter Duesberg.

From a numbers point of view, you have anywhere between a 12 in 100 chance and a 29 in 100 chance of contracting HIV in South Africa, depending upon your demographic group, and which set of data you choose to use. The UNAIDS prevalence rates appear much lower than departmental figures, but this is because they refer to the entire population, not merely a sub-group.

The numbers. though alarming because of this margin of error,  are also sobering.

I recall a screaming match with Judith Soal when my numbers didn’t support her subjective passionate reporting on the plight of hospitalised victims, all of whom were invariably poor pregnant mothers with HIV babies, who had by then been sent home because of ARVs.

Maths may not be my forte but I did pass matric and get a degree in Social Science.

Thankfully, the rate of new infections in the country, represented by the prevalence rate among 15- to 19-year-olds, continues to drop, from 14% in 2010 to 12.7% in 2011. There are some who would say that a bit of journalistic exaggeration  and editorial colour was necessary  in order to drive public policy. But were such shock tactics required?

Weird thing about prevalence is the question of epidemiology. Prevalence rates of an “epidemic” change according to population demographics and geographical region. The language used in these reports are thus often loaded with assumptions based upon the medical model. INM at the turn of the century however, were in the Irish dark ages in which questioning received opinion and common wisdom could get you fired. Besides, HIV scare stories sell newspapers, balance and context tend to tone down such manipulations of public opinion.

Selling newspapers, creating Zackie Achmat and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) , and destroying Mbeki was thus more of a priority than having intelligent, balanced debate on all the issues. These shock tactics under O’Reilly were thus bound to create further shockwaves down the line. The reason I say this is because when you force a particular line on the public, even if it be the most scientifically correct viewpoint, without creating a space for dissent and discussion of the consequences of adopting the new opinion, you destroy the basis of free and open inquiry, the very thing upon which science is based.

Take a look at how science operates. There is something called the Scientific Method. A body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A pandemic in which you not allowed to measure or gather empirical evidence? How is it possible to integrate any information if you are not allowed to question the validity of a hypothesis, if you are not, by nature, a sceptic?

In failing to provide balance and context to its coverage of the South African HIV crisis, INM merely pushed the common wisdom which was in Ireland at the time. This placed the Mbeki administration on the back foot, with tragic consequences as health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, moved by traditionalism, advocated a diet of garlic, olive oil and lemon to cure the disease. The 20 year academic and cultural boycott had hit the ruling party as much as it did the apartheid regime.

This is the kind of article that could have been published in 2001, instead it took ten years for a South African media outlet to print stats like Women have a 1 in 200 chance of contracting HIV via oral sex. The moral grundies who had been warning white South Africans of a special place in hell if the Immorality Act was dismantled had a field day. The Irish-controlled press punted their special brand of moral solipsism, as Catholics waited until 2013 for the Pope to finally see the light on condoms.

South Africa, a country where one is not allowed to question HIV statistics and where you have to blindly accept AIDS dogma as the truth. Is this the same country with a SKA radio telescope programme? No wonder we are so behind in other areas when it comes to science.

Something does not sit well in the above story. It is not that I’m the first person to author a popular article on HIV pathology and DNA testing. A pretty reasonable attempt at relating the science of the day. And it is not because this is one of many such firsts when it comes to my circuitous career in journalism. No, it is the nagging question: Did the conservatives pull a fast one and move from being moral grundies to HIV pundits?

12% of the population holding the remaining 88% of the population to ransom in a world in which the default is AIDS and absolutely everyone is now considered a suspect, has produced a strange result.  We have moved from the solidarity sex of the struggle, to the solidarity of HIV.

The latest news of an American sports personality who garnered massive public support because of his HIV positive status, announcing that he never had HIV to begin with, should serve as a warning.

Equally disturbing, the untimely death of South African television’s first openly HIV positive TV soap star who played the character of Letti Matabane in SABC3’s Isidingo, age 40.

The default position should be on freedom of thought, critical inquiry and consent of the governed, not the views of the church, the party or any one particular idea of morality. A press which provides balance and context is one which ultimately succeeds in maintaining a coherent historical narrative in the long run.

SEE: Mbeki Wrong about Death Statistics 

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