You are here'House of Numbers' is an AIDS denialist propaganda film

'House of Numbers' is an AIDS denialist propaganda film

28 April 2009

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by Jeanne Bergman

I went to Nashville to see the film House of Numbers, and it is indeed a piece of HIV denialist propaganda. The film maker presents himself as 1) an innocent young guy just looking for 2) the truth about HIV and AIDS but is increasingly confused by the seemingly contradictory things he learns, until he concludes that 3) poverty, not HIV, is the cause of deaths attributed to AIDS. 4) Much of his argument rests on the diagnostic protocols for both HIV and AIDS, and 5) the problem of effective, tolerable treatments. Finally, 6) it impugns the motives of both people with HIV and researchers, suggesting that they are all engaged in a hoax for money.

1) In fact, Brent Leung is not new to the topic: he has reportedly worked on videos (possibly never completed) based on books by two of the most bizarre AIDS theorists--in 1999, "Emerging Viruses" by Len Horowitz (anti-vaccine conspiracist) and in 2000, "State Origin" by Boyd Graves, who has a spread sheet he says proves that the federal government created HIV in its labs. Far from innocent, Leung misrepresented his denialist agenda to AIDS scientists and clinicians he interviewed.

2) Leung wasn't looking for the facts about HIV/AIDS; he was looking for footage that could support denialist theories and undermine public confidence in HIV science. He does this by editing footage so that HIV denialists look credible and scientists look grumpy, eccentric, or uncertain. (A few of them made this easy.) He juxtaposes brief clips from interviews with real scientists with one another and with people on the street, to create a false sense that on the one hand there is no scientific consensus about HIV , and on the other hand that a pharma conspiracy has misled ordinary people to think there is a consensus. He obscures the intense disagreements among denialists about whether HIV even exists, and he never states affirmatively his own conclusions, in that way ducking responsibility for the conclusions viewers are led to draw. (At Nashville, he said he was "neutral" on the question.) So for the record: not everything there is to know about HIV and AIDS was instantly known, and while there is an absolute scientific consensus that HIV is the necessary cause of AIDS, we are continuing to learn a lot about how the virus damages the immune system. Limits to scientific knowledge do not mean that what is being studied doesn't exist: it only means that science is a gradual process of theorizing, testing, and confirming.

3) Leung doesn't look at how different US populations most affected by AIDS (IV drug users, gay men, children of HIV+ women, low-income urban African-Americans, hemophiliacs) have only one thing in common: a virus that is transmitted by blood, semen and breast milk. The long-since disproven poppers theory is trotted out for KS and PCP in gay men, and then leung leaps to the African epidemic, to claim that the common denominator of communities affected by AIDS is poverty and malnutrition. He neglects to mention that the people who die from AIDS in Africa are primarily the strongest people in the prime of life who are most sexually active, not the elderly and very young who are the most vulnerable to malnutrition.

4) A lot of the film addresses seeming inconsistencies in HIV testing and AIDS diagnoses. First, it treats the gradual increase in knowledge, and therefore changes in definitions over time, as an indication that HIV isn't real and that political and profit motives drove the invention of the disease. Secondly, it treats the process of HIV screening (ELIZA antibody test plus interview) and confirmatory testing as if screens, false positives and confirming tests were an anomaly in medicine. They are not: they are routine and, used properly, essential. The variations in AIDS diagnoses in the US and Africa (where HIV tests may not be available) reflect environmental and economic differences between regions; the do not undermine the fact that an infectious pathogen, the virus called HIV, gradually destroys the immune system and allows opportunistic infections to take hold. Here is a basic fact: the existence of a deadly pathogen is independent of the language humans use to describe it and to diagnose the illness it causes.

5) The film attacks AZT a lot, emphasizing early problems with monotherapy and toxic dosages, and ignoring the effectiveness and relative ease of current ARV treatments. A few outlying cases are highlighted to imply that AIDS meds are always deadly and should not be prescribed. One is Joyce Ann Hafford, an HIV+ pregnant woman who was in a clinical trial for Combivir and nevirapine; her doctors apparently did not respond appropriately to signs of liver failure, and she died in 2004. This is a tragedy, but neither undermines the evidence that HIV exists nor the fact that millions are alive today because of ARVS (and watchful doctors). The second is Audrey Serrano, who apparently had one positive HIV antibody screen, and on this basis her doctor prescribed ARVs over several years. In fact, Serrano was not infected; the doctor committed malpractice by not confirming her HIV+ self-report and treating her without a proper, multistep diagnosis. She won a $2.5 million malpractice suit in 2007. And the third is a young woman, Lindsay Nagle, who was adopted from a Romanian orphanage. She tested negative for HIV antibodies there, but positive when she arrived in the US (along with parasites and other issues, according to her mother). A Western Blot was done, and the parents were told it was reactive--they didn't see it. The little girl was put on AZT and was in a lot of pain and did not thrive. In the film, the child's parents say that they reached out to denialist Peter Duesberg in dispair, who said to stop AZT immediately, and the child recovered. She is now 18. During the panel discussion in Nashville, it emerged that the Western Blot showed only two reactive bands and a viral load test was negative. So Lindsay was probably the victim of a bad diagnosis and was never HIV infected. AZT dosages in the early '90s were high, and the little girl was clearly harmed by a drug that is toxic at high levels. But her story, and her health today, do not disprove that HIV is the cause of AIDS: they merely prove that medical care in the US is uneven at best.

6) Throughout, the film implies that doctors, scientists, and people with HIV/AIDS are motivated by financial gain. In interview clips, young African-American men enumerate the benefits (reduced rent, home health aides, etc) they are entitled to with a diagnosis, implying that they aren't ill, just scamming. And because pharmaceutical corporations are profit-making businesses, the suggestion is that this disease was invented to make money when, in Peter Duesberg's explanation, a cancer virus wasn't found. But again, the fact that some corporations are making money does not mean that the virus, and the disease, don't exist.

I could go on and on, and I will, in a longer piece I am writing for In the meantime, I urge everyone to be alert to the propaganda techniques that the film uses, and, if the film shows in your area (it is scheduled for Oklahoma in June), to be prepared to challenge the film's lies and help audiences understand the facts of HIV/AIDS.