Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Pseudoscience Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

HIV/AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore is dead

Longtime readers of this blog may remember the case of Eliza Jane Scovill. For newbies and those who might not remember, I’ve copiously linked to posts written by me and others.

To boil it all down, three years ago a child named Eliza Jane Scovill (often called EJ) died tragically three years ago of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and HIV-associated encephalopathy. The reason is that her mother, Christine Maggiore, was a prominent HIV/AIDS denialist, who, after having been found to be HIV positive back in the early 1990s fell under the sway of Peter Duesberg and came to believe that HIV does not cause AIDS and that therefore she did not need to take antiretroviral drugs. She even went so far as to form an HIV/AIDS denialist/activist group known as Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives. Even worse, she imposed her pseudoscience on her child EJ. Not only did she refuse to take antiretrovirals during her pregnancy to lower the risk of maternal-fetal transmission of the virus, but she refused to have EJ tested for HIV and insisted on breastfeeding her, even though breastfeeding can transmit the virus from mother to child.

After EJ’s death, the HIV/AIDS denialist cranks, aided and abetted by their allies in the blogosphere, tried very, very hard to claim that her death was not due to HIV. One in particular, a toxicologist named Dr. Mohammed Al-Bayati, read the autopsy report and tried to blame EJ’s death on a reaction to antibiotics and a childhood viral illness, a claim that had no reasonable basis in science or medicine. As a result of my efforts to rebut Dr. Al-Bayati, a representative of Christine Maggiore even tried to suck me into a pseudodebate. It was one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of this blog. Even now I scratch my head when I think about it, wondering just what the heck the HIV/AIDS denialists were thinking when they tried to play me.

Unfortunately, now it appears that Maggiore’s belief that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS might have caught up with her. I say “might have” because we do not know. The one thing we do know is that she has died of pneumonia at the age of 52:

On Saturday, Maggiore died at her Van Nuys home, leaving a husband, a son and many unanswered questions. She was 52.

According to officials at the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, she had been treated for pneumonia in the last six months. Because she had recently been under a doctor’s care, no autopsy will be performed unless requested by the family, they said. Her husband, Robin Scovill, could not be reached for comment.

You can bet that there probably won’t be an autopsy.

It is possible that Christine Maggiore, in fact, died of a community-acquired pneumonia or some other sudden cause. It happens sometimes. (Remember Joe Strummer of one of my favorite rock bands ever, The Clash? He died suddenly of a massive MI at age 50.) However, if Maggiore’s cause of death had been something other than a mystery illness, seemingly a pneumonia that sounds as though it might be HIV-related, chances are that Maggiore’s family would have stated plainly the cause of her death. Even though we’re unlikely ever to know for sure unless Maggiore’s family requests an autopsy, it’s still pretty unlikely that a 52 year old died of a simple community-acquired pneumonia or dropped dead of another illness, and if it wasn’t HIV-related why be so coy about it? Moreover, the fact that Maggiore had been treated for this “pneumonia” in the last six months sure sounds suspiciously as though she had developed a more chronic infection, consistent with Pneumocystis pneumonia. Assuming that’s the case, which is a pretty reasonable assumption, Maggiore has now joined the list of other HIV/AIDS denialists infected with HIV who have gone to their grave claiming that their HIV does not cause AIDS, that antiretrovirals do not improve survival of HIV-positive patients even though the evidence is overwhelming that they do, and that the illness that claimed them was not due to HIV, activists such as Michael Bellefountaine and David Pasquarelli.

Of course, the HIV/AIDS denialists are out in force trying to deny that Maggiore died of HIV-related causes:

Her supporters expressed shock Monday over her death but were highly skeptical that it was caused by AIDS. And they said it would not stop them from questioning mainstream thinking.

“Why did she remain basically healthy from 1992 until just before her death?” asked David Crowe, who served with Maggiore for a number of years on the board of the nonprofit Rethinking AIDS. “I think it’s certain that people who promote the establishment view of AIDS will declare that she died of AIDS and will attempt to use this to bring people back in line. But you can only learn so much from an unfortunate death.”

Brian Carter, who facilitated local peer groups with Maggiore, said the movement would remain strong.

“Christine was only part of this. There is an outstanding number of prominent rethinkers, independent thinkers, doctors, scientists, lawyers who question AIDS causation.”

Why did she remain “basically healthy” from 1992 until just before her death? Because, if her death was indeed due to HIV, she was clearly an outlier, and she was fortunate enough that her HIV was slow-progressing. Unfortunately for EJ and her, reality has a way of imposing itself upon you whether you believe in it or not. As for the “outstanding number of ‘rethinkers,'” well, suffice it to say that that list is less than stellar. Indeed, it appears that HIV/AIDS denialists are taking a play out of the playbook of creationists by constructing lists of “experts” who “doubt” that HIV causes AIDS.

There are at least three tragedies here. First was the death of EJ at such a young age. She was sacrificed on the altar of her mother’s cultish refusal to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS and that antiretroviral therapy can not only prolong life but decrease the risk of maternal-fetal transmission of the virus. The second is that since the mid-1990s Maggiore has done a lot to spread the pseudoscience and misinformation that claims that HIV does not cause AIDS. Such misinformation has has devastating consequences in Africa, as this article points out:

Though they run counter to the scientific consensus about AIDS, such beliefs can have a major effect. In South Africa, where about 5.7 million people live with HIV, the government refused until 2005 to fund antiretroviral treatment, citing questions about the effectiveness of the drugs that inhibit the replication of HIV. . . Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health calculated earlier this year that the South African government’s delay in introducing treatment between 2000 and 2005 cost more than 330,000 lives in that country.

That is the largest tragedy in terms of the global effect to which Maggiore’s promotion of HIV/AIDS denialism has contributed.

On a more personal level, the third tragedy is that Maggiore had another child, a son. He, fortunately, appears to have escaped having HIV transmitted to him by his mother. On the other hand, unfortunately for him, not only did his mother’s delusion claim the life of his older sister three years ago, but, if indeed Maggiore did die of HIV-related complications, her premature death was potentially preventable, and her delusion also has cost him a loving mother. As Peter Staley put it:

What should we call it? A suicide? What should we call it when a woman dies because she refuses to believe she has a treatable illness?

And what should we call it when a woman lets her baby daughter die because she refuses to believe the baby has a treatable illness? A murder?

Maggiore’s son joins the uncounted others who mourn HIV victims whose lives might have been saved or prolonged if not for the refusal to accept the science that has produced one of the greatest achievements of scientific medicine ever, the characterization of the cause of AIDS and the development of treatments that reduced HIV infection from a death sentence to a chronic disease that can be managed with medication–all within less than 20 years.

ADDENDUM: Here’s my followup post on this. Hopefully, there will need to be no more.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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