AIDS – which can so heartlessly take people away in their prime of life – is the lethal scourge of our day, and it is still light years away from being brought under control. This epidemic seems to have an uncanny knack for attacking people that the dominant society considers “undesirable”: gays, injection drug users (IDUs), and prisoners. And AIDS has increasingly become a grim reaper in the Black and Latino communities within the U.S. and among Third World people internationally.
The commonly cited U.S. statistic that Black people have twice the rate of AIDS as white Americans understates the problem because it is based on a cumulative figure (that is, the total number since 1981). But early on in the epidemic a large majority of the diagnosed cases were among white gay men. (It is very possible that there were many undiagnosed cases among IDUs – particularly Black and Latino – who lacked access to decent medical care.) Looking at new rather than cumulative cases gives us a better picture of what is going on now. In 1992 the rate of new cases for Latinos was 2.5 times higher than for whites.((Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, March 1993.)) The stark Black/white ratios for the rate of new AIDS cases in 1993 was 5/1 for men and 15/1 for women. ((CDC figures reported in the New York Times ( NYT), 9/9/94.)) By then, AIDS had become the leading cause of death of Black people between the ages of 25 and 44, ((NYT, 9/19/94.)) And it continues to get worse as the AIDS hurricane moves deeper into the ghettos and barrios.
Internationally, the racial disparity is even worse: about 80% of the world’s 9 million deaths from AIDS through the end of 1995 have occurred in Africa, ((Figures are based on correlating the August, 1994 report (at the World Conference on AIDS, in Japan) by the Global AIBS Policy Coalition and the update of their figures cited in J. Osborne, “The Unbeliever, New York Times Book Review, 4/7/96, p.8. Global Coalition estimates are somewhat higher – and in my opinion probably more accurate – than official figures from the World Health Organization.)) and this plague has already orphaned over 2 million children there. (( J. Mann, D. Tarantola, and T. Netter, eds., AIDS in the World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p.90, gives an estimate of 1.3 million by 1992. The death toll has more than doubled since then.)) In short, there is a powerful correlation between medical epidemiology and social oppression. What is more, that mesh fits – like a tailor made suit – on the extensive body of history of chemical and biological warfare (CBW) and medical experiments against people of color, prisoners, and other unsuspecting citizens. Such CBW in North America started when the early European settlers used smallpox infected blankets as a weapon of genocide against Native Americans. It includes the pre-market testing of birth control pills, before proper dosage was known, on Puerto Rican and Haitian women who were not warned of the potentially severe side effects.
Recent revelations about U.S. human radiation experiments led to a comprehensive review of all government agencies by a Presidential Advisory Committee. They found that there had been at least 4,000 U.S. government sponsored human radiation experiments, involving as many as 20,000 people, including some children, between 1944 and 1974. ((The Final Reports White House Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995. 925pp.).)) It has also been documented that the U.S. Army conducted hundreds of tests releasing “harmless” bacteria, viruses, and other agents in populated areas, including a test to see how a fungal agent thought mainly to affect Black people would spread. ((L. Cole, “OpEd” pieces, NYT 1/25/94 and 3/23/95.)) (For an excellent summary of U.S. CBW, see Bob Lederer’s article in Covert Action Information Bulletin, #28, Summer, 1987.)
The most apposite example is the four decade-long Tuskegee Syphilis study. Starting in 1932, under U.S. Public Health Services auspices, about 400 Black men in rural Alabama were subjects in an experiment on the effects of untreated syphilis. They were never told the nature of their condition or that they could infect their wives and children. Although penicillin, which became available in the 1940s, was the standard of treatment for syphilis by 1951, researchers not only withheld treatment but forbade the men from seeking help elsewhere. This shameful “experiment” was stopped in 1972, only after a federal health worker blew the whistle. ((Stephen B. Thomas and Sandra Crouse Quinn, “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932 to 1972: Implications for HIV Education and AIDS Risk Reduction Programs in the Black Community, American Journal of Public Health, 81:11, Nov., 1991, p.1501. For an in-depth discussion, see James Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (New York: The Free Press, 1981).))
Nor is experimentation on people of color a thing of the past. Beginning in 1989, 1,500 children in West and East Los Angeles and Inglewood were given the experimental Edmonston-Zagreb, or E-Z, measles vaccine as part of a government-sponsored trial. Most of the subjects were Latino or New Afrikan (Black). The parents of these children were never told that they were part of an experiment with an unlicensed drug, and thus had a less than adequate basis for giving their consent. The E-Z vaccine was also tested in Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Guinea, and more than a dozen other Third World countries. Trials in Los Angeles, conducted with the cooperation of Kaiser Permanente, the Centers for Disease Control and John Hopkins University, were stopped two years later after questions were raised about the vaccine’s relationship to an increased death rate among female infants. ((Marlene Cimmons, “CDS Says It Erred in Measles Study,” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1996.))
On another level, the drug plague in the ghettos and barrios has the effect of chemical and biological warfare against those communities. The government’s role in this scourge is probably much more direct than the obvious stupidity and corruption. There has been considerable evidence, going back to the 1960s, of CIA involvement in international drug-trafficking in order to raise money to finance anti-Communist guerrilla forces in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua.
A new bombshell has just hit with the August 18-20, 1996 series of articles by Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News. Based on recently declassified documents, court testimony, and personal interviews, Webb describes how a CIA operation was instrumental in the new influx of cheap cocaine into Black communities in the early 1980s, paving the way for the emergence of the devastating crack epidemic. The CIA set up and ran the “Contras,” a terrorist force fighting to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Starting in 1982, two key Contra fundraisers (Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandón), enjoying obvious protection from investigation and prosecution, brought the first large-scale and cheap supplies of cocaine into South-Central Los Angeles.
Once we move beyond specific health issues into the political realm, government plots to prevent or destroy Black liberation are a continual and central feature of U.S. history. The most relevant example for today’s dire political situation is the FBI’s “Cointelpro” (counterintelligence program), which peaked (but undoubtedly didn’t end) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This secret but extensive sabotage campaign against Black liberation and other movements of oppressed people, as well as against white radical groups allied with them, was exposed only after activists broke into an FBI office and found some of the documents. For example, a 1968 FBI memo calls on agents to:
…prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups…prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability. ..prevent the rise of a black “messiah” who would unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement. Malcolmb X (sic) might have been such a “messiah”…
The program included a devilish array of dirty tricks and disruptions. While of course none of the documents explicitly discuss assassinations, about 40 Black Panthers were murdered over this five year period, and the Panthers were hit with over 1,000 arrests on trumped-up charges. Another grisly example is what was done to the Native American movement. In the three years following their 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, at least 69 American Indian Movement members and supporters met violent deaths. (For more detail on Cointelpro, see Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression, Boston: South End Press, 1990.)
The violent plots against these movements have everything to do with the terrible setbacks in power and conditions for oppressed peoples today.
In light of all the documented horrors, there are good reasons why so many prisoners as well as a significant portion of the New Afrikan community believe that government scientists deliberately created AIDS as a tool of genocide.
There is only one problem with this almost perfect fit: It is not true. The theories on how HIV – the virus that causes AIDS – was purposely spliced together in the laboratory wilt under scientific scrutiny. Moreover, these conspiracy theories divert energy from the work that must be done in the trenches if marginalized communities are to survive this epidemic: grassroots education and mobilizations for AIDS prevention, and better care for people living with HIV.
It is this dangerous diversion from focusing on the preventive measures so urgently needed to save lives that makes the rash of conspiracy theories so disturbing. That’s the concern that compelled the writing of this paper. I’ve been doing AIDS education in prison for over nine years; these conspiracy myths have proven to be the main internal obstacle – in terms of prisoners’ consciousness – to concentrating on thorough and detailed work on risk reduction. What’s the use, believers ask, of making all the hard choices to avoid spreading or contracting the disease if the government is going to find a way to infect people anyway? And what’s the point of all the hassles of safer sex, or all the inconvenience of not sharing needles, if HIV can be spread, as many conspiracy theorists claim, by casual contact such as sneezing or handling dishes?
The core of the mind-set that undermines prevention efforts is “denial.” People whose activities have put them at risk are often so petrified that they don’t even want to think about it. Conspiracy theories serve up a hip and seemingly militant rationale for not confronting one’s own risk practices. At the same time, such theories provide an apparently simple and satisfying alternative to the complex challenge of dealing with the myriad of social, behavioral, and medical factors that propel the epidemic.
In addition to my extensive personal experience, a recent study out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that New Afrikans who believed in the conspiracy theories are significantly less likely to use condoms or to get tested for HIV. ((AIDS Weekly (A W), 1 1113/95.)) To put it bluntly: The false conspiracy theories are themselves a contributing factor to the terrible toll of unnecessary AIDS deaths among people of color.
While convinced by scientists I know that humans did not design HIV, my main concern here is not to disprove the conspiracy theories. Neither do i attempt to solve the problem of the origins of AIDS or even review the many different theories and approaches to that question. The origin of this disease, as of many others, is likely to remain unsolved for years to come. Various theories of AIDS origins include: a virus that jumped species, an accidental byproduct of biological warfare experiments on animals, a new viral mutation, and a virus that lived in an isolated ecological niche until new social conditions facilitated the explosion of an epidemic. There is also a set of theories based on the now highly dubious proposition that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. (For excellent discussions of HIV’s likely history and the social factors that facilitated the explosion of the epidemic, see Gabriel Rotello, “The Birth of AIDS,” OUT, April, 1994, and Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague, pp. 281-390.)
Instead this article examines the validity of one set of theories being widely propagated to prisoners and to New Afrikan communities: that HIV was deliberately spliced together in the lab as a weapon of genocide. These theories have had important public health and political implications. My urgent, life and death purpose is to refocus attention on AIDS prevention and care and, more broadly, on the struggle against the racist and profit-driven character of a public health system that is causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Readers not interested in a detailed critique of the conspiracy theories are invited to skip right to the last three sections of this essay, starting with “The Real Genocide.”Hopefully, that is also where all readers will concentrate their attention.
When first introduced to a conspiracy theory in 1987, 1 believed it because of the sordid history of U.S. chemical and biological warfare. The version I saw then was based on the work of two East German scientists, Jakob and Lilli Segal, and was published by the Soviet news agency Tass on 3/30/87. They claimed that HIV couldn’t have possibly evolved naturally and that it was obviously an artificial splice between visna virus (a retrovirus ((HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is one of the subset of viruses known as retroviruses. A retrovirus stores its genetic information in the form of a single-stranded RNA instead of the more usual double-stranded DNA. Only after the retrovirus penetrates the host cell does it construct a DNA version of its genes, using a special enzyme called reverse transcriptase.)) that infects the nervous system of sheep) and HTLV-1 (the first retrovirus known to infect humans). They argued that the splice was created at the notorious CBW lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland and then tested on prisoners in the area.
Upon receiving and believing this article, I immediately sent it to a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology (now at the University of Massachusetts Medical School), who specializes in immunology, Janet Stavnezer. My friendship with Janet goes back to the 1960s and her support for civil rights and the anti-war movement. While that does not make her analysis infallible, there is certainly no way she could be a conscious part of a conspiracy against oppressed people. Stavnezer’s response to the article I had found so politically credible was unequivocal: the splice theory that the Segals posit is scientifically impossible. (All references in this paper to Stavnezer’s analysis, as well as to her colleague at U. Mass. who specializes in virology – professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, Dr. Carel Mulder – come from personal correspondence and discussions.)
A couple of years later the Soviet Union withdrew the Segals’ charges. But it is open to interpretation whether they did so because the “science” involved is so demonstrably dishonest or because with “ Perestroika, ” they were now cultivating diplomatic favor with the U.S. In any case, there are other fatal flaws in the Segals’ theory. First, in an obvious error of U.S. geography, they speculated that Maryland prisoners, once released, congregated in New York City to become the seedbed of the epidemic; but most Maryland prisoners would return to Baltimore, or Washington D.C., and neither of those cities was an early center of AIDS. Second, they posit sophisticated forms of genetic engineering and cloning that hadn’t yet been invented in 1977. ((Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (New York: Penguin, 1995), p.362.))
Since the Segals there have been a number of related theories that HIV was man-made. One posits a splice of visna virus and equine infectious anemia virus; another, a splice of visna virus and bovine leukemia virus. One sets the date at Fort Detrick back to 1967; another implicates the World Health Organization (WHO), starting in 1972. Most of these other theorists (such as Robert Strecker, John Seale and William Douglass) come from the far right politically and charge that – whether it was engineered at Ft. Detrick and/or by WHO – the AIDS virus is a Soviet biological warfare assault on the Western world.
I sent these various splice theories to Stavnezer and Mulder for review; none of them holds water scientifically. The method for analyzing the relationship of different viruses is to compare the base pairs of nucleic acids that constitute the DNA. None of the viruses posited in the various splice theories has nearly enough similarity (or homology) with HIV to be one of its parents.
At the same time as my 1987 inquiry, another, and far more exhaustive, study independently came to a similar conclusion: the various genetic engineering theories were fundamentally flawed. Investigative journalist Bob Lederer researched the topic for Covert Action Information Bulletin (CAIB), a publication that has been outstanding at exposing CIA and related operations. Lederer, an anti-imperialist and an AIDS activist, also started out with a political predisposition for believing the government could well have created AIDS. His in-depth research led him to conclude that the series of HIV-splice theories were false. One of his prime sources was Dr. David Dubnau, a long-time activist against CBW, who was emphatic: the HIV splice theorists “are simply wrong.” This movement scientist independently offered the same explanation as Stavnezer and Mulder: HIV does not have any nearly sufficient sector of homology with the proposed parent viruses. ((B. Lederer, “Origins and Spread of AIDS,” Covert Action Information Bulletin (CAIB), 28, Summer, 1987, p.47.))
Needing a vehicle for the deliberate dissemination of the allegedly spliced virus, the conspiracy theorists also characterize various vaccination programs (against smallpox in Africa, hepatitis-B among gay men in the U.S., and polio in various places) as examples of CBW campaigns. While vaccination programs with inadequate controls for contamination may have contributed to the spread of infection, they could not have been a prime cause: The geography of the vaccination campaigns does not correspond with the locations of early centers of AIDS ((See T. Quinn, et al., “AIDS in Africa: An Epidemiologic Paradigm,” Science, Nov. 21, 1986, p.959.)) – and retrospective tests have not found any such contamination. ((Garrett, op. cit. p. 381.))
Meanwhile, such unsubstantiated rumors can dangerously discourage people here and in the Third World from getting the same protections for their children that have done so much to stop diseases among more privileged whites. The danger is illustrated by the unnecessary and serious 1989-91 outbreak of measles among children within the US. More privileged children had routinely been protected by a safe and effective vaccine (not the later, experimental E-Z variety) in use since 1963. The tragic result of the public health system’s failure to carry out thorough vaccination campaigns in poor, primarily Black and Latino, communities was 27,000 cases of measles and 100 deaths in 1990 alone. ((Ibid., p. 510-11.))
There is another major problem with the splice theories – timing. Why in the world would scientists searching for a weapon of genocide in the early 1970s plunge into the then-completely-uncharted territory of human retroviruses when there were already many known and available lethal agents? Marburg virus, for example, discovered in 1967, would make an excellent candidate. ((See the description in Ibid., pp. 53-59.)) On the other hand, scientists had no reason to even consider the class of viruses to which HIV belongs as possible CBW agents to destroy the human immune system.
The first human retrovirus (HTLV-I) was not discovered until 1977, and even then it could not immediately be linked to any disease. Yet the epidemiological evidence shows that AIDS already had appeared in several countries by 1978. ((Ibid., pp. 291, 297, 350, 381 and Lederer, lox. cit., p. 47.)) For full-blown AIDS cases to already be so geographically dispersed, HIV (a virus with a long incubation period) had to have existed at least several years before that.
And it is probably considerably older. Retrospective tests on blood taken in 1971-72 from 238 IDUs across the U.S. found that 14 of the 1129 samples – or 1.2 percent – were HIV antibody positive. ((Garrett, op. cit., p. 363.)) There are also a number of known cases of patients who died of AIDS-defining diseases decades ago. These include: a teenager who died in St. Louis in 1968 with four different opportunistic infections; a Norwegian sailor, his wife and a child in the late 1960s; and a sailor in England in 1959. Preserved tissue and blood samples from all of these cases later tested HIV antibody positive, although when the more difficult direct test was tried in two of these cases they could not recover HIV itself. ((Ibid., pp. 364-65, 380.))
Medical case histories going back to the 1930’s – the earliest period in which accurate records were kept – show isolated cases with all the earmarks of AIDS. Various analyses of the DNA sequences – a technique used for broad assessment of a species’ age – have provided estimates for the age of HIV that range from 30-900 years. ((For a fuller discussion, see Gabriel Rotello, “The Birth of AIDS,” Out, April, 1994.))
Whenever HIV first arose, and however long it may have subsisted at a low level in isolated populations, there is no mystery as to why its spread would take off in the mid-1970s. There were a host of new social conditions to serve as powerful amplifiers for any infectious agent: international jet travel flourished; a sexual revolution provided many more opportunities for multiple sexual partners; injection drug use greatly accelerated; there was a revolution in the use of a range of blood products, including multiple-donor blood-clotting factors for hemophiliacs; and there was the scandalous practice, born of poverty, of multiple re-use of syringes for legitimate medical practices in Third World countries.
The travel, sex, drug and blood products revolutions all combined by the mid 1970s to create powerful amplifiers for the rapid global spread of infectious diseases. ((For an in-depth discussion of these revolutions and their role see Ibid., and Garrett, op. cit., pp. 281-390.)) Far from being an anomaly, AIDS is a harbinger of other pandemics to come if humanity doesn’t radically change our approach to worldwide public health.
In brief, the lack of knowledge of any human retroviruses before the late 1970s and the compelling evidence for the earlier genesis of HIV virtually eliminate the possibility that scientists deliberately designed such a germ to destroy the human immune system. More specifically, and decisively, Stavnezer and Dubnau independently confirm that all the alleged splices are in fact impossible because HIV does not have nearly enough genetic similarity with any of the proposed parent viruses.
The most common article on the alleged conspiracy theory circulating in New York State prisons is “WHO Murdered Africa,” by William Campbell Douglass, M.D., which appeared in Health Freedom News, September, 1987. (“WHO” stands for the World Health Organization.) Douglass has developed these themes at book length in AIDS: The End of Civilization (Brooklyn: A & B Books, 1992). His work deserves careful scrutiny because he has become a prime source for many Black community militants and prisoners who embrace the conspiracy theory out of a sincere desire to fight genocide. Douglass, however, who is white, expresses little concern for Black lives. Instead his avowed purpose is the defense of Western civilization, and he describes his politics as “conservative” – which turns out to be quite an understatement for his ultra-right wing political agenda.
The authorities’ response to the AIDS crises has been disastrously inadequate, and establishment science has tended to be arrogant and glib. Their quick pronouncement of the African green monkey theory of the origins of HIV and their intense promotion of AZT as the main medical response to AIDS were particularly suspect. This experience makes people prone to embrace any attacks on establishment science. But the crisis we face demands that we think critically rather than become simply reactionary.
Douglass is clearly opposed to mainstream science, but what he offers instead is a bizarre cocktail of half-truths, distortions, and lies. He may be an MD, but he obviously has little or no background in genetics, virology, or epidemiology. On p. 171 (all page references are to his book) he confuses the most basic distinction in epidemiology between the cause of AIDS (a virus) and a means of transmission (dirty needles). He evidently thinks (p. 230) that all RNA viruses are retroviruses, which is like thinking all fruits are citrus. In fact his whole discussion there and in his article as to the possibility of transmission by insects displays a fundamental ignorance of the science involved. ((For an explanation of the actual factors involved, see “Can Mosquitoes Transmit AIDS?” Natural History, July, 1992, p.54.)) There is also something radically wrong with his statistics, as he offers five very different figures for the number of HIV infections in the U.S. (pp. 53, 60, 63, 168, 170) without making any effort to reconcile the variations.
Douglass “proves” that HIV is a splice of two other viruses by comparing the shapes as depicted in his own crude and inaccurate sketches of them (p. 231). But the scientific method for determining the degree of relatedness of different viruses is by detailed comparison of the sequence of base pairs of nucleic acid in the DNA. Such an analysis in fact disproves the splice theory.
Douglass also promotes a strange cure for numerous ailments – photoluminescence – in which small amounts of blood are drawn, irradiated with ultraviolet light and reinjected (pp. 251-252). Treatment at his Clayton, Georgia clinic can span several weeks and cost thousands of dollars. ((Glenn Garelick, “Desperately Seeking Solutions: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” American Health, May, 1992.))
Douglass goes beyond such misconceptions and distortions to perpetrating fraud. His “smoking guns” to prove the conspiracy are two key articles, one from Bulletin of the World Health Organization, the other from Science. If you take the time to read the actual articles, they don’t say anything like what he claims they do. Douglass must be consciously promoting a disinformation campaign.
His centerpiece is that WHO actually called for engineering a retrovirus to cause AIDS. He “proves” this by citing a 1972 article in the WHO Bulletin (A. Allison, et. al., “Virus-Associated Immunopathology: Animal Models and Implications for Human Disease,” 47:1, pp. 257-264). Douglass is emphatic: WHO is talking about “retroviruses” and is calling for scientists to “attempt to make a hybrid virus that would be deadly to humans.” As Douglass sums it up:
“That’s Aids. What the WHO is saying in plain English is ‘Lets cook up a virus that selectively destroys the T-cell system of man, an acquired immune deficiency. ‘”
(The above quotes are from Douglass’s “WHO Murdered Africa,” and the underscorings are all his. He presents an almost identical description in his book, p. 80.)
On the surface, it is astonishing that any conspirators would reveal themselves by openly publishing a call for such an evil project. If one takes the time to find and read the WHO article in question, it becomes totally obvious that Douglass completely flipped the whole meaning and intent. The article in question (1) is NOT primarily about retroviruses; (2) is NOT at all about engineering new viruses; (3) NEVER discusses making hybrids; and (4) is absolutely NOT about making a virus to destroy the human immune system.
Instead, the article is all about a number of viruses already known at the time that cause various illnesses (in humans and other mammals). Evidence was emerging by 1972 that some of these known viruses, in addition to their direct damage, worked in part by selective effects on the immune system – in some cases by impairing and in other cases by overstimulating immune responses. There is a call to study these secondary effects. The article is simply a legitimate inquiry into existing diseases and has absolutely nothing to do with creating some new virus to cripple the immune system.
Douglass offers only one quote from the original article. Not only does he completely change the context, he also makes a crucial deletion from the quote: the list of viruses they are studying (Bulletin , op. cit., at p. 259). All the listed viruses were related to already recognized illnesses most are not retroviruses; none is a retrovirus that affects humans; and none is suspect in any of the proposed scenarios for HIV-splicing. Douglass has created a bogeyman out of thin air.
The other key and verifiable fraud is Douglass’s oft-repeated claim that “Seventy-five million Africans became infected, practically simultaneously.” [his emphasis] (p. 83 of his book). The cite offered for this figure is an article by T.C. Quinn, J.M. Mann, et. al. in Science 234, p. 955. But this 1986 article never mentions 75 million people infected or anything like that, not on the page Douglass cites, not anywhere else. The authors, who’ve done very valuable work on AIDS in Africa, don’t offer a specific figure because not enough was known at the time. But they do cite, on p. 962, “estimates of several [i.e. two to ten] million infected in Africa.” Incidentally, Douglass never mentions that this same Science article presents strong evidence contradicting his allegations that HIV can be transmitted by mosquitoes and that HIV was spread by vaccinations.
Douglass’s citation of seventy-five million infected practically simultaneously is a far cry from the actual discussion of between two and ten million over the course of five years. But the actual numbers are a true horror and have continued to rise over the years. By flaunting blatantly phony figures, Douglass makes a cruel mockery of the real AIDS conflagration consuming Africa. He would have us write Africa off as a lost cause, making AIDS medical care and prevention there already beyond hope. This direction is the exact opposite of what is needed: to fight fiercely for world health resources for this most pressing human need. (See my articles on the AIDS holocaust inDowntown, 1 1/10/93, and in Toward Freedom, August, 1996.)
Awareness of the real and horrendous human toll must serve as a rallying cry to promote the urgently needed measures that can stem the current march of death. WHO’s official estimates of the world wide toll reached by the beginning of 1995 was 18.5 million HIV infections, 6 million cumulative cases of AIDS, 4.5 million AIDS deaths. About 2/3 of these HIV infections and 3/4 of those AIDS cases occurred in Africa. ((AW, 12/25/95.)) The Global AIDS Policy Coalition offers figures that are somewhat higher, and probably more accurate. They estimate that 1.3 million Africans died of AIDS in 1995 alone, bringing the cumulative death toll there to 7.6 million. ((Cited in J. Osborne, op. cit.))
The lies about a WHO conspiracy serve as a diversion from attacking the real causes of this tragedy: the way imperialism and neo-colonialism have drained and crippled Africa. As Dr. Pierce M’pele, director of Congo’s Anti-AIDS Program, puts it: “It is undeniable that AIDS is a disease that comes with poverty.” ((AW, 12/4/95, p.26.))
Here are some of the ways the exploitation of Africa and the resulting poverty have blown the dangerous spark of HIV into a raging AIDS forest fire:
- 300,000 Africans are becoming infected with HIV each year from blood transfusions alone ((AW, 12/4/95.)) because those plundered nations don’t have the money to screen their blood supply.
- HIV is also being spread because many health clinics can not afford disposable needles and have to reuse old ones. For example, a mission hospital in rural Zaire had just 5 syringes to use for its 300 to 600 daily patients. ((Garrett, op. cit., p. 129.))
- One of the most powerful factors in the sexual transmission of HIV is untreated sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). A recent pilot project in rural Tanzania showed that proper treatment for STDs can reduce HIV transmission by 42 percent. ((H. Grosskurth, et al., “Impact of Improved Treatment for Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Rural Tanzania,” The Lancet , 346:530-36, Aug., 1995.)) The high rate of untreated STDs in Africa is a direct result of the lack of the most basic public health resources.
At the same time, the prevailing poverty means that many Africans with AIDS don’t have even the most basic medication – such as an aspirin to relieve pain or a lotion for itches that can have them scratching until bloody. ((AW 1/29/96.))
These conditions result not only from the history of exploitation but also from current programs imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that force these governments to spend money on debt payments to banks rather than on health care for people. Uganda is typical; they spend just $3 per person a year on health care compared to $17 per person on debt payments. ((NYT, 3/16/96.)) But in another way Uganda is atypical. Despite the poverty, community initiatives and government education on prevention have resulted in a major decline in new HIV infections. ((NYT,4/7/96.)) Given this courageous start by people in Uganda, think what they could accomplish with a workable public health budget.
Overall, the world has failed to marshal even one-tenth of the $2.5 billion a year that WHO says is needed to mount an effective prevention campaign throughout the Third World. Compare that paltry but unattainable sum to the more than $40 billion a year these same countries lose in debt payments to banks in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. The phony charges about WHO actually serve to reinforce the prevailing and deadly neo-colonialism. The U.S.’s failure to pay any of its 1995 assessment of $104 million – one-quarter of WHO’s budget ((NYT, 3/11/96.)) – has gutted that agency’s already grossly inadequate program of assistance to vulnerable and impoverished countries. Meanwhile over 2.7 million human beings worldwide are becoming newly infected with HIV every year. ((Estimate by the UN Joint Programs on HIV/AIDS, cited in NYT, 6/7/96. They give the figure in the form of 7,500 new HIV infections per day.))
The crimes around AIDS are just one part of a global economic order where 14 million children die from hunger and easily preventable diseases each year, where 2 billion people are illiterate and where 1.5 billion people have little or no access to health care. ((Fidel Castro, speech at “Summit for Social Development,” Copenhagen, 3/11/95.))
Douglass would have us believe that Africa was essentially already murdered by 1981 and have us off chasing the WHO bogeyman. In contrast the urgent need is to stop the murders in progress , to save lives in Africa, by attacking the real source of the problem – global exploitation and the misuse of resources.
Douglass’ disinformation becomes a deadly threat when he discredits the very prevention measures needed to save lives:
It is possible that even the government propaganda concerning intravenous drug use is a red herring. If the intravenous route is the easiest way to catch AIDS, why does it take as long as five to seven years for some recipients of contaminated blood to come down with AIDS? (p. 171)
Here he seems to forget the well established incubation period between infection with HIV and the onset of AIDS, although he manages to remember it later when he refers to a “latency” period of 10 years. (p. 245).
And arguing that there isn’t a perfect correlation between the number of acts of intercourse and infection, he declares, “AIDS is not a sexually transmitted disease.” (p. 243)
Then, after sabotaging prevention efforts by disparaging the well-established danger of needle sharing and unprotected sex, Douglass fuels hysteria with claims that AIDS can be contracted by casual contact. In his article he says, “The common cold is a virus. Have you ever had a cold? How did you catch it?” By failing to differentiate between airborne and bloodborne viruses, he is conjuring up a scare tactic as scientific as a warning that your hand will be chopped off if you put it in a goldfish bowl because, after all, a shark is a fish. He also asserts, citing no evidence, that “the AIDS virus can live for as long as 10 days on a dry plate,” and then asks, “so, are you worried about your salad in a restaurant that employs homosexuals?”
While people are understandably skeptical of government reassurances on any matter, we can turn instead to the experiences of families of people with AIDS and of grassroots AIDS activists: There are hundreds of thousands of us who have worked closely with infected people for years without catching the virus. The unwarranted fears about casual contact deter sorely needed support for our brothers and sisters living with HIV infection and divert attention from the most common means of transmission: unprotected sex and shared drug injection equipment.
Despite the apparent irrationality, there is a coherence to Douglass’ distortions and fabrications. They are driven by an ultra-right wing political agenda which, as research by Terry Allen of Covert Action Quarterly shows, goes back to the 1960s. Douglass, a member of the John Birch Society, ran a phone line spouting a 90-second “patriotic message.” In it, he railed against the Civil Rights Movement, and denounced the National Council of Churches and three presidents as part of a “Communist conspiracy.” Among the nuggets he offered callers in at least 30 U.S. cities was the likelihood “that those three civil rights workers [presumably Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman] in Mississippi were kidnapped and murdered by their own kind to drum up sympathy for their cause.” In another he predicted that “The Civil Rights Act will turn America into a Fascist state practically overnight.” ((Lawrence Peirez, “The Telephone Hate Network,” ADL Bulletin , Sept., 1965.))
Two decades later he was blaming gays for AIDS in The Spotlight , the organ of the ultra-right Liberty Lobby, for which he wrote regularly and in which he ran advertisements for “The Douglass Protocol,” his cure-all medical clinics. In 1987, he wrote, “Some have suggested that the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] is waiting for the majority of the homosexuals to die off before releasing ribavirin,” a drug he was at the time promoting as a miracle cure for AIDS. Douglass, however, opposed withholding a “suppressed” cure, “although I feel very resentful of the homosexuals because of the holocaust they have brought us.” ((William C. Douglass, MD, “New AIDS Scandal Brews,” Spotlight , Oct. 5, 1987.))
The political heart of AIDS: The End of Civilization is quite explicit: AIDS is part of the “entire mosaic of the current attack against western [sic] civilization.” (p. 14). The term “western” is a thinly veiled way of saying “white.”
Douglass sees AIDS as a diabolical plot perpetrated by WHO, which “is run by the Soviets.” (p. 118). He weaves an elaborate and intricate plot for how the Communists – much like an invading virus – took over the machinery of the U.S. Army CBW labs at Ft. Detrick and the U.S. National Institutes of Health in order to use them to create and propagate AIDS.
Douglass is so deep into the tradition of the Communist bogeyman that he doesn’t bother to revise this scenario for his 1992 edition – after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor does he explain how such an involved and extensive plot would not get exposed now that there is no Soviet loyalty and coercion to prevent past operatives from talking about it. He even goes so far as to charge that a Soviet functionary named Dr. Sergei Litivinov was the head of WHO’s AIDS control program in the late 1980s. But it is a matter of indisputable record that the American Jonathan Mann, whose writings Douglass cites favorably, was the Director from the founding of the program in 1986 until 1990 – when he was replaced by another American, physician Michael Merson. ((For an account of the founding and development of WHO’s Global Programme on AIDS, see Garrett, op. cit., pp. 360, 459-81.))
Historically, one important function of generating anti-Communist hysteria has been to use it as a political cover to mobilize Americans against Third World people’s efforts to achieve control over their own land, labor, and resources. The Vietnam War is one of many examples. Many of us who are anti-racist are very critical of WHO because it is Western-controlled and offers such a pitifully inadequate response to the health needs of the world’s majority. But self-avowed rightists like Douglass hate the UN and WHO because of the little bit of say that Third World nations have there. Rather than put this in explicitly racist terms, the issue is rationalized as “Soviet control” – even to the degree of misstating who was the director of WHO’s AIDS prevention program and even after the Soviet Bloc has collapsed.
In the guise of a program against AIDS, Douglass proposes a basketful of traditional ultra-right and neo-Nazi political policies:
- Support and strengthen the powers of local law enforcement (p. 139)
- Make preemptive military strikes against Russia (p. 138)
- Abolish the UN and WHO (p. 120)
- Stop all illegal Mexican immigration into the U.S. (p. 253)
Then there are a number of other proposals more directly about AIDS:
- Mandatory testing for HIV (p. 66)
- Quarantine of all those with HIV (pp. 165-6)
- Removal of HIV children from school (p. 161)
- Incarceration, castration, and even execution to stop prostitution (p. 158)
While these may have some visceral appeal to people’s fears, a wealth of public health and activist experience has shown that such repressive measures are counterproductive in practice. Discrimination and repression drive those with HIV and the risk activities underground, making people unreachable for prevention, contact notification, and care. But while completely negative in terms of public health, such proposals are very useful for furthering the right wing’s police state agenda.
Douglass fans fears about casual transmission in order to promote a political platform. He argues that if we don’t overcome a tradition “where civil rights are more revered than civil responsibility” hundreds of millions will die (p. 165). And here is the final appeal in his book: “[I]t appears that regulation of social behavior, as much as we hate it in an egalitarian society such as ours, may be necessary for the survival of civilization” (p. 256).
As bizarre, self-contradictory, and refutable as his pronouncements are, Douglass is not an isolated crackpot. Not only does his material readily get published but it also has been widely propagated among Black prisoners. In addition, his program is in perfect harmony with the politics of Lyndon LaRouche, a notorious neo-Nazi with documented links to U.S. intelligence agencies. Somehow, for 28 years now, LaRouche has always had plenty of money for a host of slick publications and for a series of front organizations that operate on a national and international scale. ((For more on LaRouche see B. Lederer, “Origins and Spread of AIDS, (Part II), CAIB 29, Winter, 1988, pp. 56-7; and M. Novick, White Lies/White Power (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995).))
LaRouche’s “National Democratic Party Committee” organized the intensely homophobic campaign in 1986 for Proposition 64 in California, which would have mandated an AIDS quarantine. (Fortunately the voters rejected this measure.) The “scientific” source the LaRouchites used for their reactionary campaign was Robert Strecker, MD. Douglass has worked closely with Strecker, considers him a mentor, and dedicates End of Civilization to him.
We live in a strange and dangerous period when the attractive mantle of “militant anti-government movement” has been bestowed on ultra-right wing, white supremacist groups. The only reason they can get away with such a farce is that their big brother – the police state – did such an effective job in the blood-soaked repression of the genuine opposition, such as the Black Panthers, rooted in the needs and aspirations of oppressed people. With people’s movements silenced, the right has coopted the critique of big government and big business to achieve new credibility.
The resurgence of the ultra-right is based on growing discontent. The previous guarantee of economic security and significant privileges for a wide range of middle and working class white people has become threatened by global capital’s relentless quest to boost profits. The right wing, however, portrays the threat as primarily coming from the inroads made by women, immigrants and people of color. Thus their vehemence and militancy springs from the same legacy of white supremacy and violence that is the basis of the government they criticize, and their program is in essence a call far a return to the pioneer days’ ethos that any white male had the right and power to lay a violent claim to Native American land or New Afrikan labor, and female subservience. In short, while capitalizing on legitimate anger against the establishment, the far right’s logic leads only to an intensification of white supremacy and violent repression.
Michael Novick reported in White Lies/White Power (p. 309) that within the far right “The LaRouche groups are particularly dangerous because, despite their fascist orientation, they have been attempting to recruit from Black groups for some time.” Another source or AIDS conspiracy theorists is the political analysis of Bo Gritz, head of the “Populist Party.” ((E.g., a speech by Gritz is included as an appendix in Terrance Jackson’s AIDS/HIV Is Not A Death Sentence (New York: Akasa Press, 1992).)) As Novick’s book shows, the “Populists” use anti-business rhetoric to try to recruit among the left, but the organization has clear roots in the Klan and definite ties to the extremely white supremacist “Christian Identity” movement.
When such forces propagate AIDS conspiracy theories among New Afrikans, one result is to divert people from the grassroots mobilization around prevention and education that could serve to foster greater cohesion, initiative, and strength within the Black community. At the same time, the right fans the flames of homophobia, which has combined with racism within the predominantly white gay & lesbian movement to prevent the forging of a powerful alliance of the communities being decimated by the government’s negligence and inaction on AIDS.
Whatever the right’s motives are, the practical consequences are clear: There is a definite correlation between believing these myths and a failure to take proven, life saving preventive measures.
To put it in three words: These Lies Kill.
The New York Times ran a series of articles in May, 1992 expressing alarm that many Black people believe in various conspiracies – with AIDS as a prime example. In their editorial of 5/12/92, the Times could only understand this as “paranoia.” Educated white folks, to the degree they are aware of such matters, tend to be “amazed” by such beliefs among Blacks. But what is actually amazing is that so many white people are so out of touch with the systematic attack by the government-medical-media establishment on the health and lives of New Afrikans. Indeed the problem is far more powerful and pervasive than any narrow conspiracy theory can capture.
The health horror this society imposes on New Afrikans is not at all made into a “mainstream” public issue, but Black people know what they are experiencing. That may explain why some people become very vested in a plot scenario that seems to crystallize, in an unmistakable way, the damage being done. The bitter twist, though, is that those conspiracy theories are serving as a red herring that can divert people from tracking down and stepping to the real genocide.
There was a radical gap between the life expectancies of New Afrikans and of white Americans even before AIDS burst onto the scene. A Health and Human Services Dept. report showed that “excess deaths” among Black people for 1980 – the number of Black people who died that year who would not have if they had the same mortality rate as whites – was 60,000. That figure marks more unnecessary deaths in one year alone than the total of U.S. troops killed during the entire Vietnam War.
The Black body count is a direct result of overwhelming Black/white differences in living conditions, public health resources, and medical care. The infant mortality rate – a good indication of basic nutrition and health care – is more than twice as high for Black babies, and Black women die in childbirth at three times the rate of white women. There are also major differences in terms of prevention, detection, treatment, and mortality for a host of other illnesses, such as high blood pressure, pneumonia, and appendicitis. (The summary in the two paragraphs above is based on “Black Health in Critical Condition,” by Steve Whitman and Vicki Legion, Guardian, 2/20/91.) The comparisons are even starker when you look at class as well as race, and, of course, the health status of both Latinos and poor whites is worse than that of the more well-to-do whites.
The situation has worsened since 1980 with the advent of AIDS and the new wave of tuberculosis (TB). TB, long considered under control in the U.S., began to resurge in 1985. One big factor was the greater susceptibility of HIV-infected people. But TB is an important example for another reason: It has always been closely linked to poverty. Crowded tenements, homeless shelters, jails, inadequate ventilation, and poor nutrition all facilitate the spread of this serious disease. Given the distribution of wealth and privilege, it is not surprising that the rate of TB for New Afrikans is twice that for white Americans.
In addition to disease, the tragedy of the high rate of Black-on-Black homicide – a secondary but particularly painful source of needless deaths – is in its own way a corollary of the frustration and misdirected anger bred by oppression. Black people are also assailed by a range of problems such as high stress, poor nutrition, and environmental hazards. One telling example of environmental hazards is the excessive blood levels of lead in children – a condition with proven links to lowered academic performance and to behavioral disorders. For the latest survey, in 1991, harmful levels of lead were found in 21 percent of Black children compared to 8.9 percent for all children. ((NYT, 2/7/96.))
The public health history makes it clear: Far from being a mysterious new development with AIDS, it is all too common for epidemics and other health hazards to flow along the contours of social oppression.
While government plots such as the Tuskegee and the secret radiation experiments do in fact exist, the brutal damage they’ve done is small-time compared to the high human costs of the everyday functioning of a two-tiered public health system – the malign neglect of denying people basic means of prevention and treatment.
Overall, the conditions for people of color within the U.S. can best be described as a concatenation of epidemics cascading down on the ghettos and barrios: AIDS-TB-STDs; unemployment, deteriorating schools, homelessness; drugs, internal violence, police brutality, wholesale incarcerations; violence against women, teen pregnancies, declining support structures for raising children; environmental hazards. All of these mutually reinforcing crises very much flow from the decisions made by government and business on social priorities and the allocation of economic resources. (The numerous public health essays of Rodrick and Deborah Wallace provide excellent analysis of the sources and effects of this series of epidemics.)
When governmental policies have such a disparate impact on survival according to race, that fits the crime of genocide as defined under international law. Whatever term one uses, the cruelty of tens of thousands of preventable deaths is unconscionable. This reality is the basis for the scream of a people that “mainstream” society seems unable or unwilling to hear. These conditions are the real genocide in progress that must be confronted.
There are two particular ways in which the racist structure of U.S. society fosters the spread of HIV: The public health system fails to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs); and the legal system seeks only to punish drug abusers rather than treat them or ameliorate the underlying social and economic causes.
A major risk factor for HIV transmission is untreated STDs. These infections can concentrate HIV-laden blood cells in the genital tract and can also cause genital sores, which are easier points of entry for HlV. ((Judith Wasserheit of the CDC, “Heterogeneity of Heterosexual Transmission: The Roles of Other STDs. Presentation at the XI International Conference on AIDS, Vancouver, July 10, 1996, Abstract We.C.453.)) Although some STDs can be readily contained by responsible public health programs, rates began to soar for Blacks in the mid-1980s, with, for example, a doubling of the syphilis rate for Blacks from 1985 to 1990. At the same time, the rate remained stable for whites. This grave racial difference probably results from the lack of adequate STD clinics and the failings of public health education, along with the more general breakdown in social cohesion and values that can affect communities under intense stress.
Drugs, along with the violence and police repression that accompany them, constitute a plague in their own right for the ghettos and barrios. However, the public perception that illicit drug use is more prevalent among non-whites is wrong. Household surveys conducted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse show that New Afrikans, 12 percent of the U.S. population, comprise 13 percent of illicit drug users. Where there is a tremendous difference, though, is in incarceration. 74 percent of the people in prison for drug possession are New Afrikans ((Marc Mauer and Tracy Huling, Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later (Washington: The Sentencing Project, 1995), pp. 5, 12.))
There is also a major disparity in terms of drug-related infection by HIV. Some studies indicate an HIV rate (seroprevalence) among Black IDUs five time higher than among white IDUs. ((My calculations based on the several studies on drug use, race and HIV summarized in Justicia, 12/95.)) While partially a result of which drugs are used and how they are used, there is certainly a big and deadly difference in who has access to new (sterile) needles and syringes through either pharmacies or personal networks. Also, on the street, police are much more likely to stop and search Blacks and Latinos. This practice deters injection drug users of color from carrying personal sets of works (in states where they are illegal) and pushes them instead to share needles at shooting galleries.
Many people are now aware, from books like And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, of how the government and medical establishment shamefully fiddled while the early AIDS flames began sweeping through the gay community. But there is almost no public discussion of today’s deplorable failures around AIDS prevention, which continue to wreak havoc in the ghettos and barrios.
The latest example is hardly known beyond the immediate circles of AIDS workers. Health agencies and AIDS service organizations distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets over the years teaching a quick bleach method for sterilizing needles and syringes. It involved shooting a 10% solution of bleach in and out three times and then thoroughly rinsing with water. The method looked good when tested in the laboratory, and it made sense to try to get the information out quickly and widely. But when actual studies in the field were completed in 1993, the results were a very high rate of transmission, ((CDC et al., “HIV/AIDS Prevention Bulletin,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 3/31/93; and Medical Alert, 10/11/1993.)) revealing that the method was useless on a practical level.
Health authorities analyzed what went wrong and developed a new – more thorough and complicated – bleach method that should work well if the user takes the time to conscientiously carry out all steps. Literature published after 1993 describes this new, more effective method. But there has been no wide-scale effort to publicize – to ring an urgently needed alarm – about the error of the old method that was disseminated to perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. As I know from my work in the field, most IDUs don’t even bother to look at new literature because they’re sure they already “know” the bleach method. At the same time, there’s been no serious effort to find ways to teach IDUs, who may be impatient to get high, practical methods to assure they complete the cleaning process properly. Studies indicate that 80% of drug users do not clean their equipment for the more than 30 seconds that is required. ((Medical Alert, 10/11/1993.))
A main reason the authorities haven’t trumpeted the warnings about the problems with bleach – the failure of the old method and the difficulty of getting IDUs to take the time to do the new method correctly – may well be to avoid pressure for programs that provide users with new, sterile needles and syringes. In fact the government initially suppressed the report on a study the government itself had commissioned on “needle exchange programs.” (NEPs). The report, which concluded that NEPs are highly effective, was eventually leaked to the press.
The main resistance comes from politicians who don’t want to risk being labeled “soft on drugs.” Drugs are indeed incredibly destructive to oppressed communities, but the phony posturing of politicians is no part of the solution. Instead of decent ways to make a decent living, the politicians dish out poverty and despair; instead of drug treatment centers and programs to build community cohesion, they proceed with wholesale incarceration of the youth; instead of seeing the need for self-determination in the Black and Latino communities, the politicians use the drug crisis as a rationale to catapult us toward a police state. The vehement opposition to NEPs follows this same failed pattern. It does nothing to stop drugs but rather sows pain and death for people of color.
The study that the government commissioned and then tried to suppress involved a comprehensive review of all known needle exchange programs and experiments in the U.S. and Canada. The authors found no evidence that the NEPs led to any increased drug use. ((P. Laurie, A.L. Reingold, B. Bowser, et al., The Public Health Impact of Needle Exchange Programs in the U.S. and Abroad: Summary, Conclusions and Recommendations, School of Public Health, U.C. Berkeley, and Institute for Health Policy Studies, U.C. San Francisco (Wash. D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1993), p. 18.))(And of course such programs could even help reduce drug use if they served as a form of outreach for involving users in drug treatment programs – except that the “anti-drug” politicians aren’t providing the funding for treatment.) While it doesn’t increase drug use, providing sterile equipment is highly effective in reducing HIV transmission. In one telling example the study found the rate of HIV among IDUs to be five times higher in states where needles are proscribed compared to states where they are legal. ((Ibid., p. 5.)) A recent open letter from 32 AIDS prevention researchers declared that, after extensive research, experts are virtually unanimous that NEPs are highly effective in reducing HIV transmission without leading to increased drug use. Yet, there is still a ban on any federal AIDS funds for such programs, and many states still outlaw possession of needles. ((AW, 1/29/96.))
Tens of thousands of IDUs, their lovers and their children have been condemned to die because health agencies won’t advertise their mistake and because politicians won’t risk being labeled “soft on drugs.”
Shared needles is just one of the areas for risk reduction. For overall prevention work, the far and away most effective method for sharply reducing HIV transmission is peer education. ((There is virtual unanimity on this point in studies presented at the various “AIDS in the World” conferences and in the studies of the National Academy of Science.)) Homeboys and/or homegirls with appropriate training in HIV/AIDS information speak the same language, live in the same situations, and can work with the people in their communities in the detailed, consistent, caring, ongoing way needed to achieve concrete changes away from risky behavior. In fact, such peer programs are the only approach proven to work.
Prisons are not only a locale of some of the highest HIV rates in the U.S., but they are also a place where people who might have been constantly on the move in the street are stationary and collected – a perfect setting for peer education. And the vast majority of prisoners eventually return to their outside communities – where they can spread AIDS awareness, or they can spread AIDS. But prison administrations have generally been hostile to peer-led HIV-AIDS education; only a pitiful handful of such programs exist, and many of those are hamstrung by bureaucratic restrictions.
Allowing misinformation about cleaning needles to persist, blocking needle exchange programs, failing to treat STDs, thwarting prison peer programs are major examples of the current criminal negligence on AIDS – and in particular of how this plague has been allowed to expand in the ghettos and barrios.
Waiting for the government to stop AIDS would be suicidal. We have to step to the problem by taking responsibility for ourselves, our families, and our communities. And the peer education model shows us that we do have the ability to make a big difference through our own grassroots efforts.
At the same time, communities that take initiative to help themselves can ally to demand socially beneficial use of social resources. Our tax money that goes to corporate welfare – the $2.5 billion, for example, for one unnecessary Sea Wolf submarine being produced simply to keep the companies afloat, or the hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for the savings and loan scandal – could instead be spent on public health and other human needs, both nationally and internationally.
What we don’t need is Dr. Douglass and the like convincing people that HIV is not spread through sex and drugs. Instead, we need to engage the youth in detailed and sensible education on sexuality and responsibility, and we need to make measures available to move IDUs away from needle-sharing. We don’t need hysteria about casual contact to generate cruelty toward people with AIDS and to foster support for police state repression. Instead, we need to support and learn from our brothers and sisters with HIV, and we need more open and democratic dialogue throughout the communities. Finally, we don’t need to be led on a wild goose chase searching for the little men in white coats in a secret lab – which we will never find – which only leads us away from confronting the colossal crimes of malign neglect that are right in front of our faces, that can be documented, that are completely rooted in racism, homophobia, and profiteering.
Once we see the real nature of the problem, we can step to it with programs of proven effectiveness against AIDS that also strengthen oppressed communities:
grass roots public health education and mobilization that includes and fights for:
- extensive peer-led programs in prisons, schools, and communities;
- thorough and responsible sex education in the homes, schools and other institutional settings for youth, along with more and accessible STD clinics;
- general access to NEPs, and much more intensive and culturally relevant anti-drug education and treatment.
At the same time we need movements that fight:
1) to make the resources of society, now being lavishly squandered on the superrich, available in order to:
- a) stop lethal public health and environmental conditions with programs that respond to initiative and leadership within the Black, Latino, and poor communities;
- b) make medicine and social services for survival needs universally available;
- c) put qualitatively more effort and focus into treatment and research for AIDS and the host of other health problems causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
2) for international solidarity with the people of Africa, including an end to the debt payments, along with reparations back to them, so that they can mount the health campaigns needed against the scourges now threatening to take millions of souls.
It’s time to stop the real genocide.
AIDS: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome
AW: AIDS Weekly
AZT: also known as “Zidovudine” and as “Retrovir”, an anti-viral drug often prescribed for AIDS
CAIB: Covert Action Information Bulletin
CBW: chemical and biological warfare
CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
CIA: US Central Intelligence Agency
Cointelpro: Counterintelligence Program
DNA: deoxyribonucleic acid
E-Z: Edmonston-Zagreb, an experimental measles vaccine
FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation
FDA: Food and Drug Administration
HIV: human immunodeficiency virus
IDUs: injection drug users
MD: medical doctor
NEPs: needle exchange programs
NYT: New York Times
RNA: ribonucleic acid
STDs: sexually transmitted diseases
UN: United Nations
WHO: World Health Organization