AIDS denialism is not a new phenomenon by any means. It has been around since the epidemic began virus popped up in the 1980s. One would think that in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence, denialists might have quietened down over time, but that is far from the case, writes Ricky Hunt in JournAIDS blog
However, denial is not an unusual response to unfortunate circumstances. Freud posits denial as the first reaction in a series of defence mechanisms when confronted with an unpleasant event. HIV/AIDS is particularly difficult to face, and perhaps one could understand the scepticism and denialism surrounding it when it surfaced.
But over 20 years later, there is still a surprisingly considerable faction of AIDS dissidents. The facts about the virus have been unequivocally established, the science has been proven, but many people still deny that it is as harmful as the evidence states.
Two books which show just how damaging AIDS denialism can be have recently featured significantly in the media. Christopher Hope and Liz McGregor, two prominent South African writers, have recently been embroiled in a debacle over a case of suspected plagiarism. HopeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s novel, My MotherÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s Lovers, has some striking similarities to McGregorÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s novel, Khabzela: The Life and Times of a South African, which was published prior to the release of HopeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s.
While the similarities might be more than coincidentally striking, one has to remember that, particularly in South Africa and particularly around the time both novels are set, there was a great deal of coverage of AIDS denialism in the media. A simple Google search on ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œAIDS denialistsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â and ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œgarlicÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â yields information and individuals that are present in both novels.
The story received coverage on the second page of the Mail&Guardian in the June 1-7 issue, as well as a significant amount of publicity across a range of media broadcasts and publications. Granted, their works both share some uncanny parallels, but they are both representations of actual events. McGregorÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s is a biography of former YFM DJ Khabzela in the time preceding his HIV-related death. Hope never actually refers to Khabzela, but his character shares an astonishing likeness to him, as would many other HIV positive people in the time the books are both set (the height of denialist credibility).
The controversy over the plagiarism scandal seems to have overshadowed the real story ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ and the reason the two authors wrote their books in the first place. Both Hope and McGregor intended to expose the faulty logic of AIDS denialists and debunk their following and movement.
What is disturbing is that it looks like the story of Khabzela, the inspiration behind the two hugely successful texts, has been forgotten. While the (somewhat petty) Hope-McGregor fiasco makes page two, the HIV/AIDS barometer (a feature in the Mail&Guardian that contains the number of people who have died of AIDS in South Africa up to the present date and which in the past appeared previously on page two), only makes it somewhere into the middle of the paper, and KhabzelaÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s life and death, like the lives and deaths of so many other people in South Africa who have died of AIDS, is forgotten by a media that only responds to sensationalism.