As I write
this, in the late winter of 2006, we are more than twenty years
into the AIDS era. Like many, a large part of my life has been irreversibly
affected by AIDS. My entire adolescence and adult life — as well
as the lives of many of my peers — has been overshadowed by the
belief in a deadly, sexually transmittable pathogen and the attendant
fear of intimacy and lack of trust that belief engenders.
To add to this
impact, my chosen career has developed around the HIV model of AIDS.
I received my Ph.D. in 2002 for my work constructing mathematical
models of HIV infection, a field of study I entered in 1996. Just
ten years later, it might seem early for me to be looking back on
and seriously reconsidering my chosen field, yet here I am.
My work as
a mathematical biologist has been built in large part on the paradigm
that HIV causes AIDS, and I have since come to realize that there
is good evidence that the entire basis for this theory is wrong.
AIDS, it seems, is not a disease so much as a sociopolitical construct
that few people understand and even fewer question. The issue of
causation, in particular, has become beyond question — even to bring
it up is deemed irresponsible.
Why have we
as a society been so quick to accept a theory for which so little
solid evidence exists? Why do we take proclamations by government
institutions like the NIH and the CDC, via newscasters and talk
show hosts, entirely on faith? The average citizen has no idea how
weak the connection really is between HIV and AIDS, and this is
the manner in which scientifically insupportable phrases like "the
AIDS virus" or "an AIDS test" have become part of
the common vernacular despite no evidence for their accuracy.
When it was
announced in 1984 that the cause of AIDS had been found in a retrovirus
that came to be known as HIV, there was a palpable panic. My own
family was immediately affected by this panic, since my mother had
had several blood transfusions in the early 1980s as a result of
three late miscarriages she had experienced. In the early days,
we feared mosquito bites, kissing, and public toilet seats. I can
still recall the panic I felt after looking up in a public restroom
and seeing some graffiti that read "Do you have AIDS yet? If
not, sit on this toilet seat."
But I was only
ten years old then, and over time the panic subsided to more of
a dull roar as it became clear that AIDS was not as easy to "catch"
as we had initially believed. Fear of going to the bathroom or the
dentist was replaced with a more realistic wariness of having sex
with anyone we didn't know really, really well. As a teenager who
was in no way promiscuous, I didn't have much to worry about.
That all changed
— or so I thought — when I was twenty-one. Due to circumstances
in my personal life and a bit of paranoia that (as it turned out,
falsely and completely groundlessly) led me to believe I had somehow
contracted "AIDS," I got an HIV test. I spent two weeks
waiting for the results, convinced that I would soon die, and that
it would be "all my fault." This was despite the fact
that I was perfectly healthy, didn't use drugs, and wasn't promiscuous
— low-risk by any definition. As it happened, the test was negative,
and, having felt I had been granted a reprieve, I vowed not to take
more risks, and to quit worrying so much.
Over the past
ten years, my attitude toward HIV and AIDS has undergone a dramatic
shift. This shift was catalyzed by the work I did as a graduate
student, analyzing mathematical models of HIV and the immune system.
As a mathematician, I found virtually every model I studied to be
unrealistic. The biological assumptions on which the models were
based varied from author to author, and this made no sense to me.
It was around this time, too, that I became increasingly perplexed
by the stories I heard about long-term survivors. From my admittedly
inexpert viewpoint, the major thing they all had in common — other
than HIV — was that they lived extremely healthy lifestyles. Part
of me was becoming suspicious that being HIV-positive didn't necessarily
mean you would ever get AIDS.
By a rather
curious twist of fate, it was on my way to a conference to present
the results of a model of HIV that I had proposed together with
my advisor, that I came across an
article by Dr. David Rasnick about AIDS and the corruption of
modern science. As I sat on the airplane reading this story, in
which he said "the more I examined HIV, the less it made sense
that this largely inactive, barely detectable virus could cause
such devastation," everything he wrote started making sense
to me in a way that the currently accepted model did not. I didn't
have anywhere near all the information, but my instincts told me
that what he said seemed to fit.
Over the past
ten years, I nevertheless continued my research into mathematical
models of HIV infection, all the while keeping an ear open for dissenting
voices. By now, I have read hundreds of articles on HIV and AIDS,
many from the
dissident point of view but far, far more from that of the establishment,
which unequivocally promotes the idea that HIV causes AIDS and that
the case is closed. In that time, I even published four papers on
HIV (from a modeling perspective). I justified my contributions
to a theory I wasn't convinced of by telling myself these were purely
theoretical, mathematical constructs, never to be applied in the
real world. I suppose, in some sense also, I wanted to keep an open
So why is it
that only now have I decided that enough is enough, and I can no
longer in any capacity continue to support the paradigm on which
my entire career has been built?
As a mathematician,
I was taught early on about the importance of clear definitions.
AIDS, if you consider its definition, is far from clear, and is
in fact not even a consistent entity. The classification "AIDS"
was introduced in the early 1980s not as a disease but as a surveillance
tool to help doctors and public health officials understand and
control a strange "new" syndrome affecting mostly young
gay men. In the two decades intervening, it has evolved into something
quite different. AIDS today bears little or no resemblance to the
syndrome for which it was named. For one thing, the definition has
actually been changed by the CDC several times, continually
expanding to include ever more diseases (all of which existed for
decades prior to AIDS), and sometimes, no disease whatsoever. More
than half of all AIDS diagnoses in the past several years in the
United States have been made on the basis of a T-cell count and
a "confirmed" positive antibody test — in other words,
a deadly disease has been diagnosed over and over again on the basis
of no clinical disease at all. And the leading cause of death
in HIV-positives in the last few years has been liver failure, not
an AIDS-defining disease in any way, but rather an acknowledged
side effect of protease inhibitors, which asymptomatic individuals
take in massive daily doses, for years.
of HIV and AIDS is puzzling and unclear as well. In spite of the
fact that AIDS cases increased rapidly from their initial observation
in the early 1980s and reached a peak in 1993 before declining rapidly,
the number of HIV-positive individuals in the U.S. has remained
constant at one million since the advent of widespread HIV antibody
testing. This cannot be due to anti-HIV therapy, since the annual
mortality rate of North American HIV-positives who are treated with
anti-HIV drugs is much higher — between 6.7 and 8.8% — than would
be the approximately 1–2% global mortality rate of HIV-positives
if all AIDS cases were fatal in a given year.
Even more strangely,
HIV has been present everywhere in the U.S., in every population
tested including repeat blood donors and military recruits, at a
virtually constant rate since testing began in 1985. It is deeply
confusing that a virus thought to have been brought to the AIDS
epicenters of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early
1970s could possibly have spread so rapidly at first, yet have stopped
spreading completely as soon as testing began.
a moment to the mathematical modeling, one aspect that had always
puzzled me was the lack of agreement on how to accurately represent
the actual biological mechanism of immune impairment. AIDS is said
to be caused by a dramatic loss of the immune system's T-cells,
said loss being presumably caused by HIV. Why then could no one
agree on how to mathematically model the dynamics of the fundamental
disease process — that is, how are T-cells actually killed by HIV?
Early models assumed that HIV killed T-cells directly, by what is
referred to as lysis. An infected cell lyses, or bursts, when the
internal viral burden is so high that it can no longer be contained,
just like your grocery bag breaks when it's too full. This is in
fact the accepted mechanism of pathogenesis for virtually all other
viruses. But it became clear that HIV did not in fact kill
T-cells in this manner, and this concept was abandoned, to be replaced
by various other ones, each of which resulted in very different
models and, therefore, different predictions. Which model was "correct"
never was clear.
As it turns
out, the reason there was no consensus mathematically as to how
HIV killed T-cells was because there was no biological consensus.
There still isn't. HIV is possibly the most studied microbe in history
— certainly it is the best-funded — yet there is still no agreed-upon
mechanism of pathogenesis. Worse than that, there are no data to
support the hypothesis that HIV kills T-cells at all. It doesn't
in the test tube. It mostly just sits there, as it does in people
— if it can be found at all. In Robert
Gallo’s seminal 1984 paper in which he claims "proof"
that HIV causes AIDS, actual HIV could be found in only 26 out of
72 AIDS patients. To date, actual HIV remains an elusive target
in those with AIDS or simply HIV-positive.
This is starkly
illustrated by the continued use of antibody tests to diagnose HIV
infection. Antibody tests are fairly standard to test for certain
microbes, but for anything other than HIV, the main reason they
are used in place of direct tests (that is, actually looking for
the bacteria or virus itself) is because they are generally much
easier and cheaper than direct testing. Most importantly, such antibody
tests have been rigorously verified against the gold standard of
microbial isolation. This stands in vivid contrast to HIV, for which
antibody tests are used because there exists no test for the
actual virus. As to so-called "viral load," most people
are not aware that tests for viral load are neither licensed nor
recommended by the FDA to diagnose HIV infection. This is why an
"AIDS test" is still an antibody test. Viral load, however,
is used to estimate the health status of those already diagnosed
HIV-positive. But there are very good reasons to believe it does
not work at all. Viral load uses either PCR or a technique called
branched-chained DNA amplification (bDNA). PCR is the same technique
used for "DNA fingerprinting" at crime scenes where only
trace amounts of materials can be found. PCR essentially mass-produces
DNA or RNA so that it can be seen. If something has to be mass-produced
to even be seen, and the result of that mass-production is used
to estimate how much of a pathogen there is, it might lead a person
to wonder how relevant the pathogen was in the first place. Specifically,
how could something so hard to find, even using the most sensitive
and sophisticated technology, completely decimate the immune system?
bDNA, while not magnifying anything directly, nevertheless looks
only for fragments of DNA believed, but not proven, to be components
of the genome of HIV — but there is no evidence to say that these
fragments don't exist in other genetic sequences unrelated to HIV
or to any virus. It is worth noting at this point that viral load,
like antibody tests, has never been verified against the gold standard
of HIV isolation. bDNA uses PCR as a gold standard, PCR uses antibody
tests as a gold standard, and antibody tests use each other. None
use HIV itself.
There is good
reason to believe the antibody
tests are flawed as well. The two types of tests routinely used
are the ELISA and the Western Blot (WB). The current testing protocol
is to "verify" a positive ELISA with the "more specific"
WB (which has actually been banned from diagnostic use in the UK
because it is so unreliable). But few people know that the criteria
for a positive WB vary from country to country and even from lab
to lab. Put bluntly, a person's HIV status could well change depending
on the testing venue. It is also possible to test "WB indeterminate,"
which translates to any one of "uninfected," "possibly
infected," or even, absurdly, "partly infected" under
the current interpretation. This conundrum is confounded by the
fact that the proteins comprising the different reactive "bands"
on the WB test are all claimed to be specific to HIV, raising the
question of how a truly uninfected individual could possess antibodies
to even one "HIV-specific" protein.
I have come
to sincerely believe that these HIV tests do immeasurably more harm
than good, due to their astounding lack of specificity and standardization.
I can buy the idea that anonymous screening of the blood
supply for some nonspecific marker of ill health (which, due to
cross reactivity with many known pathogens, a positive HIV antibody
test often seems to be) is useful. I cannot buy the idea that any
individual needs to have a diagnostic HIV test. A negative test
may not be accurate (whatever that means), but a positive one can
create utter havoc and destruction in a person's life — all for
a virus that most likely does absolutely nothing. I do not feel
it is going too far to say that these tests ought to be banned for
The real victims
in this mess are those whose lives are turned upside-down by the
stigma of an HIV diagnosis. These people, most of whom are perfectly
healthy, are encouraged to avoid intimacy and are further branded
with the implication that they were somehow dreadfully foolish and
careless. Worse, they are encouraged to take massive daily doses
of some of the most toxic drugs ever manufactured. HIV, for many
years, has fulfilled the role of a microscopic terrorist. People
have lost their jobs, been denied entry into the Armed Forces, been
refused residency in and even entry into some countries, even been
charged with assault or murder for having consensual sex; babies
have been taken from their mothers and had toxic medications forced
down their throats. There is no precedent for this type of behavior,
as it is all in the name of a completely unproven, fundamentally
flawed hypothesis, on the basis of highly suspect, indirect tests
for supposed infection with an allegedly deadly virus — a virus
that has never been observed to do much of anything.
As to the question
of what does cause AIDS, if it is not HIV, there are many plausible
explanations given by people known to be experts. Before the discovery
of HIV, AIDS was assumed to be a lifestyle syndrome caused mostly
by indiscriminate use of recreational drugs. Immunosuppression has
multiple causes, from an overload of microbes to malnutrition. Probably
all of these are true causes of AIDS. Immune deficiency has many
manifestations, and a syndrome with many manifestations is likely
multicausal as well. Suffice it to say that the HIV
hypothesis of AIDS has offered nothing but predictions — of
its spread, of the availability of a vaccine, of a forthcoming animal
model, and so on — that have not materialized, and it has not saved
a single life.
After ten years
involved in the academic side of HIV research, as well as in the
academic world at large, I truly believe that the blame for the
universal, unconditional, faith-based acceptance of such a flawed
theory falls squarely on the shoulders of those among us who have
actively endorsed a completely unproven hypothesis in the interests
of furthering our careers. Of course, hypotheses in science deserve
to be studied, but no hypothesis should be accepted as fact before
it is proven, particularly one whose blind acceptance has such dire
over twenty years, the general public has been greatly misled and
ill-informed. As someone who has been raised by parents who taught
me from a young age never to believe anything just because "everyone
else accepts it to be true," I can no longer just sit by and
do nothing, thereby contributing to this craziness. And the craziness
has gone on long enough. As humans – as honest academics and
scientists – the only thing we can do is allow the truth to
come to light.
V. Culshaw, Ph.D. [send
her mail], is a mathematical biologist who has been working
on mathematical models of HIV infection for the past ten years.
She received her Ph.D. (mathematics with a specialization in mathematical
biology) from Dalhousie University in Canada in 2002 and is currently
employed as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at a university