Aids hocus pocus. Have we learned nothing?

I’m usually a pretty nice guy to everyone who knows me. It takes a lot to get me mashing at the virtual buttons of my pocket computer in righteous anger – but those conspiracy theories about HIV and Aids have sure got what it takes to wipe that Mr Nice Guy smile right off my face.

The first time I heard one of these tinfoil-hat gems was when a physics lecturer of mine said that the HI-virus was created to exterminate black people in South Africa, using the nuclear programme that was later decommissioned. He was not joking, and I am not pulling your leg. It made no sense, but my main concern was: why would someone with a master’s degree in physics believe this nonsense, let alone convey it to the world?

The issue came around again recently when a friend of mine (“friend” here used with its technical Facebook meaning – we hardly ever speak) posted an article that supposedly shows how the US created HIV in a lab to eradicate Africans and African Americans. He did not seem to notice that HIV is, in fact, not at all racist – which would make its creation one of the worst ideas the US has ever had. Which is saying a lot.

If you’re kind, you could see his belief in this nonsense as coming from a good place; the undeniable history of racism in the US which has had many campaigns aimed at its black populace, from government-legislated racism, to the use of black men as guinea pigs, withholding treatment to test how bad syphilis can get before they die – remember the Tuskegee syphilis experiment of 1932 to 1972?

But there are so many ridiculous aspects to this conspiracy theory, that I found it difficult to hold on to the little sanity I have left when I kept falling down the dingy rabbit hole that came with every click on Google’s button. When I tried to do my job as a science communicator and committed the ultimate sin of correcting someone on the internet, I discovered that is the fastest way to be deemed not “woke” enough – a blinding blow to my fragile ego.

Dr Beetroot

South Africa has come a long way since Manto “Dr Beetroot” Tshabalala-Msimang refused millions of people life-saving ARVs because she believed a crank, in spite of an overwhelming scientific consensus. This one example is proof-enough of how dangerous bad ideas around HIV and Aids can be. The issue is too big, too dire to be able to tolerate the “have your own views, I will keep mine” rhetoric that I get from my misguided “friend”.

While the country has made major gains in the fight against HIV and Aids, at 7.1 million we still have the largest number of people in the world living with HIV, according to the UNAids programme. South Africa saw a conservative estimate of 270,000 new HIV infections and an estimated 110,000 lives lost in 2016 alone.

It gets worse: a study conducted not far from where I live in KwaHlabisa in KZN found that people are reluctant to seek treatment even after they find out they are HIV-positive. Published on World Aids Day 2017, the study by the Africa Health Institute shows that there is a stigma attached to seeking treatment. If that is the case, imagine how easily the proliferation of unfounded conspiracies can further hinder efforts to treat the illness.

An updated variant of the conspiracy theory –  found on Twitter this time – is the belief that a cure has already been found but the people in charge will not distribute it for economic reasons: they stand to make more money from ARVs than from a cure.

So now you understand why I lose my cool when “wokeness” on the internet requires that I hold on to, or at least tolerate anti-science and ahistorical ideas. They have devastating effects that surpass the three extra wrinkles in my forehead: they are eroding the hard-won progress that has been made both in treatment and with educational programmes aimed at preventing any further spread of the disease… while the smartest of us continue to look for a cure.

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