Essay

The neglected holocaust

Australia's position on the neglected holocaust of AIDS, even in the immediate region, is overwhelmed by relentlessly beating the tribal drum about the spectre of global terrorism. This continues to eclipse the challenge of the HIV/AIDS pandemic from the collective consciousness. It also minimises the inconvenience to the government of recognising that to lead a substantive response to the challenge would require an overdue leap in funding research and treatment. The harsh reality, according to estimates from UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, is that it will not be numerous decades before AIDS-related mortality will reach a hundred million people.

From its rather apocalyptic beginnings twenty-five years ago, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has generated its prophets and dissenters, heroes and heretics. At the beginning, the prophets were those who predicted a holocaust, as the mysterious disease baptised Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome in January 1983 spread from homosexual men to haemophiliacs, blood transfusion recipients, women and children. The heroes were the scientists and courageous activists who called attention to the impending holocaust and provided funding for research to identify and genetically fingerprint the serial killer. The Reagan administration and a compliant US Congress became the first holocaust deniers by remaining silent about the predictions and mortality rates.

Yet the evidence is as compelling, perhaps, as that presented to the Nuremberg trials. According to World Health Organisation and UNAIDS sources, by 2010 it is estimated that deaths from the pandemic will rival those of the bubonic plague, which killed ninety-three million people during the mediaeval and Enlightenment periods. Already in 2005, more than forty million people were estimated to be living with HIV and twenty-five million had died. In that year alone, an estimated five million were newly infected. Of the three million who died, more than half a million were children. This is covert genocide through neglect. Ninety-six per cent of people with HIV live in the developing world, including Australia's nearest neighbours, where an estimated eight million people are infected. Meanwhile, the prospects for an effective vaccine seem to be bleak and the anti-retroviral drug treatments are not keeping pace with the mutation rate of the retrovirus. This is an apocalyptic reality here and now.

In 2005, almost five million people became infected with HIV and were thereby herded onto figurative AIDS trains with well known destinations. Before considering the paradigm challenging science that may be needed to stop this holocaust, this essay unmasks some of the many faces of collusion that have become accessories to this serial killing. These include geopolitical and ideological forces which are expressed through globally significant personalities, institutions and governments. Resistance to addressing difficulties with the Jenner/Pasteur model of infectious disease and the need for a scientific revolution in the understanding of HIV are themes central to this essay.

 

SILENCE AS AN ACCESSORY TO HIV BEGAN DURING the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the United States. There was no official mention of AIDS by the US President until the Third International AIDS Conference in Washington DC in 1987. Having personally acknowledged the epidemic after the death from AIDS of his actor friend Rock Hudson, Reagan continued to obstruct research funding. From 1981 until 1990, 100,777 deaths from AIDS were reported to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. Randy Shilts unmasked the Reagan Administration's silence and fiscal neglect in his 1988 book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (Penguin).

This silence, and official reluctance to fund research into the forensic hunt for the micro-organism causing AIDS, resulted in the deaths of thousands of people whose right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, guaranteed in the US Constitution, was denied. Reagan placed defence against the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union above all other priorities, including health. Meanwhile, media silence in deference to government policy effectively colluded with HIV, despite the candlelight processions in protest and commemoration of those who died on the altar of political expediency.

In 2007, the eloquent silence which masks the AIDS holocaust mostly pertains to those dying in the developing world. While the media since 9/11 has provided pulpits for the prophets of anti-terrorism, the silence about the AIDS holocaust remains deafening – perhaps, to use Al Gore's phrase, it is another "inconvenient truth". Could the quietly lurking forces of xenophobia, racism and militant nationalism form an alliance with silence to become complicit in the AIDS holocaust? It would not be the first time that the West – including Australia – has been a bystander to genocide. In 2006, according to UNAIDS estimates, only US$8.9 billion of the US$14.9 billion dollars required to reverse and stop the pandemic were available. In 2007, resource requirements are estimated to be US$18.1 billion, while only US$10 billion is expected to be available. The collusion between political and economic policies was clear in Reagan's announcement that the only increases in federal spending would be on defence. By the end of his second term in office, he had spent more than two trillion dollars on defence, filling the coffers of the so-called "military-industrial complex". Due to the silence and fiscal neglect of the Reagan and subsequent administrations, more than one million people in America had been infected with HIV by the year 2005. To the extent that successive governments in Australia have colluded with such policies, they must accept a share of the responsibility for the toll, especially, perhaps, in South-East Asia.

 

SINCE 9/11, THE SPECTRE OF GLOBAL TERRORISM has largely eclipsed AIDS, and continues to consume many billions of dollars annually. The possibility that HIV itself is a symbolic terrorist menacing humanity seems still to be beneath the radar of humanity's collective consciousness. As is the likelihood that HIV, as it continues to mutate and becomes more virulent, is a serious threat to economic and national security, especially in the developing world.

Scientific complicity in the AIDS holocaust has several unsuspected guises. One is the contamination of scientific inquiry by extra scientific influences, including those of a commercial, political and religious nature. A recent, highly contentious debate epitomises some of the intrigue and subversion affecting the science of HIV/AIDS.

Two groups became the proponents and opponents of the Durban Declaration published in the journalNature in July 2000. This paper was a response to an argument originally published by virologist Professor Peter Duesberg in Science twelve years earlier, provocatively titled "HIV is Not the Cause of AIDS". In a manner reminiscent of the way Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation in Europe in 1517, Duesberg nailed his alternative hypotheses to the door of the AIDS establishment. He proposed that recreational and anti-HIV drugs and malnutrition caused AIDS. He accused scientific orthodoxy of suppressing research into alternative non-HIV hypotheses of causation.

By the time of the XIII International AIDS Conference in Durban in July 2000, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, a sceptic about orthodox AIDS theory and treatment, had convened a panel including many of the more prominent dissidents to fuel the controversy with mass media coverage. The flames ignited by the revolt of Duesberg and others could now be seen by the people in the global village, including those caught up in the pandemic. In an attempt to put down the revolt, 5,228 eminent medical and scientific signatories (including a number of Nobel Laureates) to the Durban Declaration affirmed that, on the basis of "exhaustive and unambiguous evidence", HIV was the cause of AIDS.

 

Having been virtually excommunicated by the scientific orthodoxy, Duesberg eventually acknowledged three years later that his hypotheses had neither been directly tested nor published in peer-reviewed journals. In other words, his claims had not run Popper's "gauntlet of scientific criticism". Nor had they been accepted by UNAIDS or the World Health Organisation. However the argument that HIV is not the cause of AIDS played into the collective denial and complacency in at-risk populations, with unknown levels of preventable infections and deaths as a result.

The acrimony of this debate was a timely reminder that science itself can be affected by intrigue. It is a myth that science is free of such influences. Other forms of intrigue can involve what Thomas Kuhn has eloquently described as obstacles to "paradigm revolutions". These include anomalies and phenomena which cannot be explained by current and dominant theories, which have become enshrined as doctrines – thereby precluding observation and discovery.

For instance, in spite of the dubious validity of the Jenner/Pasteur model of infectious disease, given the absence of an effective vaccine twenty-two years after discovery of HIV, precious funds are still being invested in what may be a Sisyphean exercise in futility. Internationally renowned researcher Dr David Ho specifically indicted both viral mutation and the shielding mechanism of HIV as grave obstacles to vaccine development in the foreseeable future. Research which is either stuck in archaic models of explanation or bound to the rock of corporate or ideological constraint is unlikely to stop the figurative AIDS trains.

 

ALTHOUGH THE FORMER UN SECRETARY-GENERAL Kofi Annan made raising collective, international awareness about AIDS a personal cause with efforts which helped to earn him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, such activities will create change only to the extent that stopping the holocaust becomes recognised as a truly salient global issue. For such a shift in consciousness to occur, recognition of a metaphorical quantum entanglement between the developed and developing worlds, with a geo-political holism which transcends the confines of nationalism, is needed – as occurred to some extent with SARS and avian influenza, or bird flu.

By contrast, HIV is not as yet recognised as a retroviral messenger and global terrorist with awesome destructive power. The AIDS holocaust seems to be perceived as less of a threat to security and to the economies of the developed world than SARS and avian influenza, in spite of intolerable mortality rates. Although more than thirty vaccines are currently being tested, the most optimistic prediction seems to be that current efforts may make it possible either to delay infection or to render it less destructive in some people. A major paradigm shift in scientific understanding may be an essential element of humankind's global response to the evolutionary summons delivered by HIV as a retroviral messenger.

A definitive solution will probably come from research at the frontiers of science – research made possible, for instance, by the emergence of devices which can exploit the nanoscale level of observation, such as the high-resolution microscopy and computer imaging techniques used by molecular immunologist David M. Davis and his colleagues, who have used such devices to explore how viruses such as HIV use what he refers to as "nanotunnels" to transport themselves within and between both the immune and the neural (nervous) systems.

This work has already revealed two levels of symbolic bioterrorism being perpetrated by HIV within the ecosystem of the human body. The best known to scientific intelligence so far is the exploitation by HIV of cellular machinery to disguise itself by copying genetic information, in tandem with rapid mutation. Another revealed by Davis is the hijacking of cellular communication networks by HIV to propel itself from one cell to another. Such discoveries could be steps towards the emergence of a new paradigm. However, unexpected breakthroughs may come from such unlikely liaisons as those which could be contemplated between biology and quantum mechanics.

 

MATHEMATICIAN ALAN TURING WAS NOT ONLY INGENIOUS in his work decrypting the enigma code during World War II and the father of the modern computer, he was also passionately interested in biology and physics. Turing explored the elegant mathematical properties revealed in the forms or shapes assumed by living organisms, including viruses. One might speculate as to what he might have done to unravel the enigmatic information properties exhibited by HIV. The apparent "intelligence" in the ingenuity with which HIV mutation continues to outstrip the creation of new anti-retroviral drugs is reminiscent of that associated with the enigma machines used by the Nazi submariners during World War II. The enigma machines changed codes daily, so that decryption posed an enormous challenge to mathematicians and scientists. Such "intelligence", of course, is to be understood as active and patterned information in various forms.

To minds like Turing, the notion that solving the enigma of HIV might involve "strange" liaisons between biology and quantum mechanics would probably not simply be dismissed. A dictum about revolutionary science, attributed to physicist Niels Bohr, specifically captures this: the difficulty with some ideas is not that they are crazy, but that they are not crazy enough.

In fact, such strange liaisons have been entertained by physicists as far back as 1967 by Erwin Schrödinger and as contemporary as Roger Penrose two years ago. They consider that quantum mechanics (and computing) may play a significant role in life and biosystems. Penrose wrote: "DNA is a molecule the persistence and reliability of its structure depending crucially upon the rules of quantum mechanics." He might also have mentioned Schrödinger's suggestion that quantum fluctuations produce mutations, a matter of serious concern in the fight against HIV. Other globally prominent physicists such as Koichiro Matsuno have provided examples of how biosystems, as energy consumers, might exploit quantum information. If biological systems do process information quantum mechanically, then they would gain a marked advantage in speed and power which would be discovered by natural selection. Physicist Richard Feynman remarked twenty years ago on the enhanced speed implicit in quantum computing.

Historically, viruses have been considered to be at the interface between the living and the non-living, or as "borderline" phenomena in this respect, though Australian physicist Paul Davies, while contemplating the origins of life in his paper on quantum mechanics, does not address this issue. However, if quantum mechanics does play a substantial role in the scientific understanding of life and its origins, then it is likely to result in enlightenment into such "borderline" phenomena as viruses and HIV.

Davies, while calling for experimental work, concludes that advances in quantum information theory could lead to the penetration of one of the deepest mysteries in science, that of the origins of life. And as I have already hinted, this would mean an epiphany of understanding of such phenomena as HIV at the border of life. Decisive breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of HIV/AIDS might well come from such research at the frontiers of science, by visionaries whose creativity is matched by their integrity and concern for humanity. However, the pursuit of such transdisciplinary research requires the courage to risk scientific reputations and to invest the necessary funds. When the breakthroughs occur, the chorus in the cathedral of the earth will be able to chant a glorious and triumphant Te Deum to celebrate the victory of the human spirit over HIV.  ♦

 


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