Friday, October 11, 2013

Why Pat Robertson's AIDS-Origin Theory Is So Dangerous

Yesterday, introducing a segment where an HIV-positive woman's immune system "miraculously" recovered after she was given a new antiretroviral therapy ("she believes the treatment was an answer to prayer"), Pat Robertson very matter-of-factly informed his audience that AIDS originated when the World Health Organization was experimenting in Africa on a monkey virus with…polio vaccine given to humans?  Oh, screw it, here's the quote:
“AIDS.  Where did it come from?  Well, I can gather, it came from Africa.  I think the World Health Organization was doing some experiments in the Congo on a monkey virus, a monkey injection to fight polio.  And it wasn’t an injection, they put it in sugar cubes and they gave it to these Africans, a couple hundred thousand in the test.  And this is the first time when monkey diseases crossed into the human condition.”
The theory—that HIV was caused by a polio vaccine developed in infected monkey tissue cultures and administered to Africans in the 1950s—originates in a 1992 article in Rolling Stone magazine and a subsequent 1999 book (by another journalist), The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS, both of which have been thoroughly discredited in the intervening years.   (You can find a concise history of the debunking of this theory at Right Wing Watch or The College of Physicians of Philadelphia's History of Vaccines project.)

It's curious that Pat put the blame on the World Health Organization.  The Rolling Stone article specifically points out that WHO denied sanctioning the vaccine trials, by all accounts conducted by a private researcher, Hilary Koprowski, who invented the first live polio vaccine.  But then, it's easy to imagine Robertson being quick to incriminate a United Nations affiliate, what with a lifetime of UNphobia under his belt (one-world government!).

But WHO does come into the picture in that they are presently working to eradicate polio in Africa with oral polio vaccine.  And one of the problems WHO faces in Africa is local suspicion of the vaccine, unfounded yet widely regarded fears that the vaccine is a Western plot to spread sterility—or the HIV virus.  As a result, several Nigerian states ban the polio vaccine outright; in February, gunmen shot up two polio clinics in the Nigerian state of Kano, killing 10 clinic workers.  Consequently, more than half of last year's worldwide documented polio cases were found in Nigeria, and 17 African countries that had previously been declared polio-free have seen the polio virus re-emerge.

If you think Pat Robertson's blathering this discredited AIDS theory half a world away in the United States won't have any effect on rumormongering in Africa, you might want to think again.  The 700 Club airs in 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with extensive broadcasts in Nigeria.  And are they proud of their African reach:

Admittedly, the African broadcasts of The 700 Club are a 30-minute digest rather than the 1-hour version broadcast in the United States (in some places every week, some places everyday).  But ultimately, it's Robertson's own Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) that decides what airs in Africa.  Do you trust them not to broadcast Pat Robertson's lies, spread unwarranted fears, and allow hundreds more to contract polio?

Or will Pat Robertson be the next Jenny McCarthy?


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