Overestimating AIDS


Phillip E. Johnson

The Boston Globe reported in late June that estimates of the number of people in many countries with AIDS have been dramatically overstated because of errors in the statistical models used to estimate the number and other factors. The Globe said that analysts are cutting the estimates of those infected with HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus) in many nations by half or more. Rwanda’s figure is being cut from eleven to five percent, and Haiti’s from six to three percent.

The newspaper candidly reported that any finding that the epidemic may have been overstated will not be welcomed by activists who have devoted their careers to fighting HIV and do not want to see any HIV money diverted to meeting other needs. I presume that the thousands of HIV researchers and the multinational pharmaceutical companies that sell the expensive drug cocktails honestly believe what they say, but there are more than enough billions at stake in the estimates to motivate a tendency to believe the worst, which is actually the best if you are thinking in dollars.

In fact, the prevailing sentiment in AIDS research is that it is reprehensible to say or do anything that might cause the public to doubt the severity of the epidemic, because any doubts may cause people to risk unsafe sex, to neglect to take the nausea-inducing medications that are supposed to extend their lives, and, although this is left unsaid, to lose some of their enthusiasm for funding AIDS programs generously.

A Sweet Racket

When the biennial International AIDS Conference convened in Bangkok this past July, there was no mention of revising estimates of HIV prevalence downward, despite the consensus of experts reported in the Globe. These international conferences, supported by the pharmaceutical companies, have an ambience typical of United Nations conferences on peace or poverty, with delegates competing in the stridency of their denunciations of the United States and their demands for more money.

The delegates behave as if they know they have a sweet racket going and don’t want to call attention to anything that might spoil it. The only news of importance revealed at the 2004 conference was that researchers are almost ready to give up on ever developing a vaccine.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, American health authorities announced the discovery of the virus (HIV) they said was the probable cause of AIDS, and predicted that a vaccine would be available within two years. Neither the exposure of the long-suppressed doubts about the validity of the scary statistics nor the failure of the vaccine trials has motivated the researchers to consider the possibility that there might be something wrong with their understanding of the epidemic.

As predictions fail and anomalies pile up, the AIDS experts cling to their theory as dogmatically as they have done since 1984. If anyone ever wonders, “Could we have made a mistake?” the unwelcome question never appears in the mass media or in the scientific journals. The World Health Organization and UNAIDS say that 42 million people around the world are infected with HIV, and that nearly 22 million people in Africa, the continent most severely affected, have died in the prime of their lives, leaving countless AIDS orphans.

The impasse in AIDS research suggests two questions. One is whether the HIV infection and mortality numbers have been inflated, either inadvertently or deliberately, in order to keep the money flowing. If they have been, the second question is whether the necessary statistical corrections reflect merely a somewhat reduced epidemic of the same general nature, or whether the statistics are wrong because the official understanding of the underlying syndrome is wrong.

The validity of the statistics is tied to the validity of the underlying virus theory because the horrific death totals are not derived by counting diagnosed bodies in hospitals or morgues, but by extrapolations delivered from a computer located in Switzerland. Here is how the Epimodel program works.

Every year, all over Africa, blood samples are taken from small numbers of women at pregnancy clinics and screened, not for the virus itself, but for proteins thought to be indicative of antibodies to HIV. From the premise that the presence of the antibody equals incurable infection, the Epimodel program calculates an estimate of the total number of African women infected by HIV. If so many women are infected, it follows that a like number of their husbands and lovers must be infected also, and, according to the underlying virus theory, all these will sicken and die at a predictable rate.

When these estimates are extrapolated to the general population, the computer modelers can arrive at seemingly precise tallies of the doomed, the dying, and the orphans left behind, with no need for anyone to verify the figures by counting bodies on the ground. Do the funded researchers regularly perform searches of mortality records to check if their estimates are accurate?

Expert Confidence

No. The HIV-scientists have so much confidence in their model that they see no need for corroborating the figures it generates, so any verification is strictly pro forma. Continent-wide verification is impossible because no reliable mortality records exist in most of Africa. The primary exception is the Republic of South Africa, where a modern bureaucracy has kept reliable records of deaths for many years.

To my knowledge, the only serious effort to check up on whether the Epimodel’s estimates are consistent with deaths actually recorded was performed by South African journalist Rian Malan, writing in the English magazine The Spectator in December 2003. Malan reported that wherever the computer-generated estimates can be checked against actual recorded deaths, the estimates turn out to be grossly exaggerated. Areas that are supposedly being decimated by AIDS show no increase in mortality, but rather are steadily increasing in population.

Malan’s articles have been ignored by the HIV research community and by the elite newspapers, which continue to report the estimates as facts, facts that governments and foundations use as the basis for their programs. I am not reporting Malan’s detailed analysis of the mortality and population figures here because my purpose is merely to prove the need for an authoritative critical appraisal of the numbers by impartial experts, experts independent of the pharmaceutical industry and also of the government and international bureaucracies, whose funding is dependent on maintaining public belief in a worldwide pandemic that is ever increasing and dwarfs all other health concerns in Africa.

The need for an audit becomes particularly apparent when we consider that AIDS in Africa has a definition (officially termed the “Bangui definition”) so completely different from the definitions of AIDS used in North America and Europe that it is altogether a different condition, unique to Africa. Few people are aware of this discrepancy of definition because, as with anything that might induce skepticism toward the official story, the mainstream media do not report it.

In Africa, unlike America, a diagnosis of AIDS does not require even a single antibody test or proof of any specific AIDS-defining disease. Any person with such common conditions as persistent fever, coughing, and weight loss can and will be diagnosed as a doomed AIDS sufferer. These symptoms are characteristic of both malaria and tuberculosis, which are very common throughout Africa, as well as other diseases associated with malnutrition, polluted water, poor sanitation, and other deplorable conditions that prevail throughout the continent.

If the mortality estimates are far too high, as there is good reason to suspect, something must be seriously wrong with the assumptions that produced those estimates. There is no doubt that Africans suffer in great numbers from terrible diseases, especially malaria and tuberculosis, which is hardly surprising in a continent so afflicted with the miseries of poverty. If the developed nations are providing only HIV drug cocktails to deal with the endemic diseases of poverty, we are not only wasting many billions—which is the least of my concerns—we are utterly failing to provide the kind of assistance that would truly help Africans.

One Hope

Will there ever be an impartial inspection to see if we have been making a ghastly mistake? There will be no audit if the AIDS careerists can prevent it, because their credibility and standard of living depends upon maintaining the status quo, which requires not looking in places where you may find something you do not want to see.

There is one hope. South African President Thabo Mbeki has read the scientific literature, including articles by scientists who dispute the nature of the health crisis that threatens Africa, and he has become skeptical, as most people do when they have an opportunity to study the facts that the official sources do not report. The major international media showered him with bad press when he questioned the AIDS orthodoxy several years ago. He seemed to retreat for a while, but earlier this year his party triumphed decisively in elections, and now he is in a much stronger political position to mount a challenge to the conventional wisdom if he chooses to do so, as many expect he will.

I hope he does not try to dispute the orthodoxy altogether, as he did in 2000, because the subject is too complicated to debate in the media. The smart strategy is simply to mount a thorough survey of the deaths that have actually occurred in South Africa, as opposed to those estimated by the computer model. If the discrepancy is anywhere near as great as I expect it to be, that should be enough to spark a thoroughgoing reappraisal of the assumptions that were responsible for the error.

The Boston Globe story can be found at www.boston.com/news/world/articles/2004/06/20/estimates_on_hiv_called_too_high.

The Spectator article can be found at www.spectator.co.uk/article.php?table=oldßion=back&issue=2003-12-13&id=3001.