Papering over the pain
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Sunday 02 January 1994
The Sunday Times was over the next few months to use many of the 'experts' quoted in the Dispatches programme to support its highly controversial contention that there is no Aids epidemic in Africa; that the blood test for HIV antibodies is wildly inaccurate; and that an 'Aids establishment' is promulgating the 'myth' to hijack limited resources .
In August, beneath the headline 'New doubts over Aids infection as HIV test declared invalid', the newspaper quoted a scientific paper published three months earlier in a specialist journal, Biotechnology, which questioned the accuracy of the HIV antibody test. Harvey Bialy, the journal's research editor, was quoted as saying that the HIV test reacts with malaria antibodies to give 80-90 per cent 'false positive' results. The implication was that figures showing high HIV- positive rates for African countries could not be trusted.
In fact the possibility of 'cross-reactivity' between antibodies for HIV and antibodies for malaria and other blood-borne parasites was recognised as long ago as 1985, as a letter submitted to the Sunday Times soon pointed out. Geoff Garnett and Roy Anderson, two biologists then at Imperial College, London, wrote: 'Much subsequent work with the current generation of highly reliable HIV tests (virtually 100 per cent specific) has found no association between present or past infection with malaria and the likelihood of getting a positive HIV test result.' The letter was not published.
Later in 1993, the Sunday Times had gathered together the views of more 'experts' to support its African myth. In August it ran a 1,500-word article based on an interview with a Jesuit priest, Angelo d'Agostino, who runs an orphanage in Nairobi. Father d'Agostino, 'in common with growing numbers of scientists and doctors around the world, is beginning to question whether HIV really is the killer it has been made out to be', the newspaper said. The charity which d'Agostino chairs later issued a statement saying the Sunday Times 'misconstrued the facts . . . in order to prove an erroneous thesis'.
In October, the newspaper ran a front-page story headlined 'African Aids plague 'a myth' ' and a 3,800-word feature based on a meeting between its science correspondent, Neville Hodgkinson, and 'two medically trained charity workers' in Tanzania, Philippe and Evelyne Krynen, a former pilot and a teacher. Hodkingson wrote that the testimony of the couple 'provided devastating new evidence against the view that the continent is engulfed by an epidemic of the disease'.
This article enraged Aids doctors and health workers in Africa. Hodkingson quoted Ms Krynen as saying: 'There is not a trace of evidence for it (Aids) being sexually transmitted.
'I will spend a night with an HIV-positive person, if he's handsome enough I'll do it to prove it.'
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