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In Memoriam, Lambros Papantoniou

02 December 2009

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by George N. Pavlakis, Rockville, MD USA

What do you do about someone who claims to be an expert, serving up half-truths, twisting the facts in credible-sounding sentences and misleading a patient? There must be some rules that apply to someone who professes to be an expert and induces patients to stop their doctor-prescribed medication. These must be applied to prevent harm to more patients. And what if these actions lead to the patient’s death?

Such is the case of Lambros Papantoniou, a journalist living in Washington, a diplomatic correspondent for several Greek media institutions for more than 30 years and a man loved by all who met him. Even in the higher political echelons of Washington, he was affectionately known as “Mr Lambros”.

During a hospital stay approximately ten years ago, Lambros was diagnosed with AIDS and given anti-retroviral therapy. Following this, his interest in the AIDS problem skyrocketed, and he sought information on it. Although he was a diplomatic correspondent, he reported on AIDS issues several times.

Unfortunately, Lambros attracted the attention of Andrew Maniotis, a scientist and self-proclaimed expert on many fields, and AIDS denialist. Dr. Maniotis is not a medical doctor, nor a pathologist, as he occasionally describes himself. He is not a tenured professor, nor a tenure-track candidate for a higher academic career. At times he denies he is an “AIDS denialist,” but this term accurately describes public opinions. He does not shy away from controversy and publicizes naïve opinions that contradict the established knowledge and medical science, trying to nullify the medical gains of generations of researchers and doctors.

Maniotis claims that Lambros was like a brother to him. With such brothers, who needs enemies? The two men became friends, and Maniotis visited Lambros often in the last few years, his influence growing stronger and stronger, ultimately convincing him that HIV did not exist. Lambros stopped taking his medication and the result was devastating. After his death, Lambros’s family and friends found his medication in his refrigerator, untouched since 2007. Instead of his life-saving doctor prescribed medicine, Lambros was convinced to consume Maniotis-promoted vitamins.

During 2007, increasingly influenced by Maniotis, Lambros became more aggressive in interrogating scientists and government officials about AIDS. In his attempts to discredit Dr. Robert Gallo, Maniotis urged Lambros to seek an interview with Gallo, hoping to confront him with an AIDS denialist agenda and publish articles containing slander and misinformation.

Dr. Gallo took the bait and spoke with Lambros openly and frankly. To his credit, Lambros published a series of articles in which he reported on the issue ethically and to the best of his ability. Undaunted by this failure, Maniotis intensified his efforts to convince Lambros of his outlandish ideas on AIDS. Lambros was finally convinced and published an extensive interview, in which Maniotis disputes all scientific facts about HIV and AIDS, advising HIV positive people, like Lambros himself, to stop taking their doctor-prescribed medication and to rely on vitamins and other unproven methods.

Unfortunately, Lambros’ non-scientific background and his personal vulnerability as an HIV positive person got the best of him, and he became more and more a spokesperson of the AIDS denialists, putting his complete trust in Maniotis.

This trust eventually cost him his life. He simply stopped taking his medication. Already hospitalized once, Lambros’s health depended on blocking HIV through anti-retroviral drugs. Without this protection, the virus continues to damage the immune system, until the patient becomes vulnerable to a multitude of common infectious agents, which would ordinarily be blocked by a functioning immune system. With the medication, he likely would have lived a longer and healthier life.

Having finally succumbed to Maniotis’ 'freindship', at several White House and State Department briefings in Washington, Lambros asked hostile nonsensical questions repeating the statements of Maniotis verbatim. He asked whether anyone had actually seen the virus. He accused the medical profession of poisoning the “so-called AIDS” patients with drugs.

In retrospect, Lambros’ increasingly erratic behavior can be partially explained by his deteriorating health. HIV ultimately landed him at Howard University Hospital under unclear circumstances. The most likely scenario is that he was found confused and disoriented and was taken to the closest emergency room. He had developed encephalitis, a common outcome of end-stage HIV infection. He was later transferred to Georgetown Hospital, where he died of encephalitis. During his more lucid moments at the hospital, Lambros told his friends he was dying of AIDS.

In the meantime, Maniotis, having the trust of Lambros’s family, was calling both hospitals and arguing about prescribed treatments, accusing medical personnel of trying to kill Lambros, all while denying the existence of AIDS. The doctors found the situation highly distracting and asked that Maniotis does not contact them. The Greek Embassy had to intervene and tell Maniotis to back off.

During this last period of his life, Lambros was clearly very sick and confused, making several statements reflecting this confusion. To their shame, AIDS denialists are promoting these statements on the Internet in order to build up their own agenda, disrespecting the memory of a sick and confused man, and, of course, not acknowledging their part in his death.

"Nobody really knows why he's gone," claims Maniotis. But in the end, Lambros knew, and so do we. He died of encephalitis following the collapse of his immune system, an outcome of HIV infection. We know from millions of other cases that, had he taken his anti-retroviral medicine and prevented further damage by HIV, he could have had many more productive years.

Some of us who knew him also feel a bit guilty at times about not being able to protect him more from predators like Maniotis.

Consequently, we feel that along with celebrating his contributions, his achievements, his life of giving, of helping many people in his community, we also need to tell his true story. Lambros was a defender of our democratic ideals, a stalwart defender of the truth, a man who gave freely of himself, his time and the limited money he had, helping countless people in his neighborhood in Washington, in cities throughout the U.S. and in Greece. He is missed even by those he criticized.

We must honor him by not allowing his death to be used to hurt others. We must not be silent, as silence did not become Lambros himself.

As a generation of AIDS activists realized some time ago, Silence = Death.