Pope: Condoms Make AIDS Crisis Worse

The Pope is taking a lot of heat for his idiotic comments that condoms actually make the problem of AIDS in Africa worse. An AFP report noted,

Pope Benedict XVI sparked global condemnation with his comments as he began his first visit to Africa as pontiff on Tuesday

Benedict said on the plane taking him to Cameroon that AIDS “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”

Reuters had a report on Vatican efforts to defend the Pope’s comments. The basic claim seems to be that even if condoms decrease the risk of spreading AIDS by some percentage, that they increase the risk by encouraging more sexually risky behavior to begin with.

Yes, the Roman Catholic Church is essentially claiming that without the availability of condoms, people would not be engaging in risky sexual behaviors. This seems a lot like the idiotic argument used against the HPV vaccine. Yeah, before there were effective ways of preventing certain sexually transmitted diseases, nobody ever engaged in risky behaviors.

Apparently, if you aren’t risking death every time you have sex, the terrorists have won!

Rich Lowry: Conservatives vs. Honest Reporting

Rich Lowry provides a good example of how to lie through omission in this article about AIDS testing.

For Lowry this is a case of those evil civil libertarians vs. babies with HIV. But spending five minutes with Google completely punctures Lowry’s main claim, that mandatory testing of pregnant women is a necessary condition for lowering the number of babies born with AIDS.

Lowry notes that in 1996, New York City passed a law that health care providers would have to routinely test women for HIV and inform them if they were HIV positive so that measurements could be taken to reduce the risk of the infant suffering from HIV as well. I’m not aware of much about the New York City law, but similar laws elsewhere do allow the mother to refuse such tests, but few do. Such testing, of course, relies on the premise that a significant number of mothers who are HIV positive will not know they have the disease and will not request such testing for social reasons, so this is the only way to accomplish this task.

Lowry writes of the New York City experiment,

According to the New York Times, in 1990 there were 321 newborns infected with HIV in New York City. In 2003 there were five. A decade ago many pregnant mothers didn’t know they were HIV-positive. They weren’t urged to get tested, and so they couldn’t take drugs that would make it less likely their babies would be infected. Newborns were tested, but — incredibly — in blind tests, meaning the mothers wouldn’t be informed of the results. The mother wouldn’t know to get treatment for her child or herself.

He then contrasts this with those civil libertarian nutsos in California, especially in Los Angeles,

Then-Rep., now Sen. Tom Coburn pushed legislation similar to Mayersohn’s at the federal level in the 1990s, but was frustrated by the same forces that opposed Mayersohn. Consequentially, the testing policy varies from state to state. Nationally, the rate of infants infected with HIV has declined, but it has not been stamped out. California — where lunatic obsessions still reign supreme — has resolutely resisted the New York approach. In 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported that cases of HIV among children were actually increasing.

So let’s ask one more time: Do we want healthy babies or not?

Okay, the first clue that something is bogus here is the bait-and-switch. When he’s talking about New York City he’s talking about new-born infants with HIV. When he switches to Los Angeles (and the article he’s apparently referring to is definitely about an increase in Los Angeles County), suddenly he’s talking about children.

The second obvious clue that something is up is that he talks vaguely about an increase without giving any absolute numbers. So lets look at the infant AIDS numbers in Los Angeles courtesy of the LA Public Health Department (PDF — Non-AIDS signifies children who are HIV+ but do not yet meet the CDC definition of having AIDS),

2000 2 3
2001 3 5
2002 0 3
2003 0 6

Since Los Angeles County is significantly larger than New York City, it has apparently experienced exactly the sort of tremendous drop in infants born with AIDS that New York has. If we are only going to use these two cities as our datapoints, it appears that semi-mandatory routine testing does not really make a difference.

So why did the Los Angeles Times report that AIDS cases among children were increasing in the county? That report was entirely about older children, not infants. Most of the children in that report — there were 18 total — had either been born outside of Los Angeles County, where mandatory testing wouldn’t have made a difference (several were, in fact, born in Mexico) or had contracted AIDS from blood transfusions.

So I guess the question here is do we want honest reporting of the results of mandatory AIDS testing or not? Lowry’s implicit answer is a resounding no.


Civil Libertarians vs. Public Health. Rich Lowry, National Review, February 4, 2005.

Pediatric Spectrum of HIV Disease (PSD) Annual Summary Report, 1988-2003 (PDF). Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, September 2004.

HIV Cases on Rise Among Los Angeles Children. Charles Ornstein, Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2002.

Hell House

Last year Kevin Kelly recommended the documentary Hell House on his Cool Tools blog. I rented it through NetFlix, and couldn’t stop watching it. I ran through it 10-12 times before my wife said it absolutely had to go back because she couldn’t take anymore.

The documentary is about the Trinity Assembly of God Church in Dallas, TX, and the “hell house” phenomenon it started back in 1990. (The church is Apostolic, btw, and there’s some awesome footage of people speaking tongues). It was apparently the first Christian church to do a haunted house where the horrors depicted are the wages of sin. Now, of course, these things are a relatively common.

The Church runs a private high school and the Hell House is a collaboration between the two, with the students trying out for parts in Hell House like students in other schools try out for parts in some bastardized version of a Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams play. Except most of the parts in Hell House are so far out there, that they’d never be allowed in a play at most schools.

The documentary works because the people involved are so fascinating. The documentary both shows them at their most vulnerable and human — such as a hapless father (and Hell House webmaster) who doesn’t seem to know how to deal with the pain of his ex-wife’s adultery to a 20-something church member who seems to be searching for something to fill the emptiness of his life and Hell House is simply the flavor of the week.

At the same time I identified with and felt sympathy for the people, they hold extreme fundamentalist views that are expressed very graphically and offensively in the documentary. The last part of the film is devoted to following visitors through on a walkthrough of Hell House which includes a scene depicting a man dying from AIDS while a demonic creature explains to the man that AIDS is the price he paid for straying from God’s chosen path into a life of homosexuality.

The film intersperses its live footage with clips that are clearly shot in a studio in which someone off camera appears to have asked the students in the film questions, and we are shown their answers as if they are simply impromptu (I *really* hate this device in documentaries). In one of these scenes, a teenage girl captures the entire thrust of the Hell House when she matter of factly states her view that the world outside is corrupt and lost.

On the one hand, the folks in the film come across almost as a parody of right wing fundamentalists — these people make Jerry Falwell look like a Unitarian minister. On the other hand, at least their faith isn’t some wishy-washy Unitarian style nonsense. These people actually believe in something. Unfortunately, what they actually believe in is far scarier than any horror film I’ve ever seen.

Of Course Ronald Reagan Addressed AIDS Before March 1987

This post accuses me of perpetuating a myth about Ronald Reagan’s statement about AIDS. It basically accuses me of repeating Deroy Murdock’s error which was just mindblowing — he was off by two days on a statement that Reagan made about AIDS. Rather than the statement being part of the State of the Union address, it was made two days later on Feb. 6, 1986.

But when Reagan made that statement (or the pointless issue of whether or not he actually made the statement as a speech or just issued a written message) is really irrelevant, because he mentioned AIDS during a September 17, 1985 press conference. Here’s the relevant part from the transcript from the New York Times of the press conference,

AIDS Research

Q. Mr. President, the nation’s best-known AIDS scientist says the time has come now to boost existing research into what he called a minor moon shot program to attack this AIDS epidemic that has struck fear into the nation’s health workers and even in schoolchildren. Would you support a massive Government research program against AIDS like the one that President Nixon launched against cancer?

A. I have been supporting it for more than four years now. It’s been one of the top priorities with us, and over the last four years and including what we have in the budget for ’86 it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS, in addition to what I’m sure other medical groups are doing.

And we have $100 billion, or $100 million in the budget this year; it’ll be $126 million next year. So this is a top priority with us. Yes, there’s no question about the seriousness of this, and the need to find an answer.

Q. If I could follow up, sir. The scientist who talked about this, who does work for the Government is in the National Cancer Institute, he was referring to your program and the increase that you propose as being not nearly enough at this stage to go forward and really attack the problem.

A. I think with our budgetary restraints and all it seems to me that $126 million in a single year for research has got to be something of a vital contribution.


Transcript of Ronald Reagan Press Conference. New York Times, September 18, 1985.

Reagan and AIDS

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has a press release/letter out reminding people about Ronald Reagan’s supposed hostility to AIDS sufferers and lack of action to combat the disease. For example, the press release notes that,

AIDS was first reported in 1981, but President Reagan could not bring himself to address the plague until March 31, 1987, at which time there were 60,000 reported cases of full-blown AIDS and 30,000 deaths.

Interesting, except that it’s not true. AIDS cases were first reported in the United States in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1983 that HIV was formally identified as the cause. As Deroy Murdock notes, Reagan mentioned the disease at the latest in September 1985 when, responding to a reporter’s question about AIDS funding, Reagan said,

[I]ncluding what we have in the budget for ’86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I’m sure other medical groups are doing. And we have $100 million in the budget this year; it’ll be 126 million next year. So, this is a top priority with us. Yes, there’s no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer.

In fact, far from refusing to talk about AIDS in public, Reagan repeatedly mentioned it, as in a February 6, 1986 speech about U.S. health policy,

We will continue, as a high priority, the fight against Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). An unprecedented research effort is underway to deal with this major epidemic public health threat. The number of AIDS cases is expected to increase. While there are hopes for drugs and vaccines against AIDS, none is immediately at hand. Consequently, efforts should focus on prevention, to inform and to lower risks of further transmission of the AIDS virus. To this end, I am asking the Surgeon General to prepare a report to the American people on AIDS.

But hey, why bother doing any research when the March 1987 date makes the press release so much more dramatic.

Besides the March 1987 date is all-but canonical. Even Rep. Henry Waxman uses it on his website to criticize the government response to AIDS (emphasis added),

While the epidemic expanded and scientific understanding of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and its modes of transmission became clearer, the federal government under the Reagan Administration consistently refused to commit the resources and effort necessary to provide urgently needed research, health care and preventive services. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan refused to mention AIDS publicly until 1987, after 19,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

Notice the discrepancy in deaths, too. According to the NGLTF there had been 30,000 deaths by 1987 whereas according to Waxman’s piece, it was only 19,000.

Update: A previous version of this story erroneously reported the number of AIDS deaths the NGLTF claimed had occurred by 1987.

AIDS Research on Foster Kids?

Here’s a story that’s gotten quite a bit of press overseas but not much in the United States even though it happened in New York. In the late 1990s, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a number of other agencies and companies apparently sponsored several clinical studies of AIDS drugs on children who were in foster care in New York.

The children were under the care of Incarnation Children’s Center which the city of New York contracts with to take care of foster children who are HIV-positive.

Clinical research with children is always controversial, but here rather than the parents granting consent for the experiments, public agencies made that decision. This is especially problematic since some of the clinical studies involved Phase I (basic safety research) studies on infants. For example, here’s how the Alliance for Human Research Protection summarizes one such study,

Phase I Study: A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial of the Safety and Immunogenicity of a Seven Valent Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine in Presumed-HIV-Infected Infants. ACTG # 292.

Infants 2 to 6 months of age were the subjects of this Phase I vaccine trial “to assess whether this vaccine is more immunogenic than placebo following the third vaccination.” Additionally these infants received PNU-IMUNE 23 vaccine at 24 months of age

The experiment was sponsored by Lederle-Praxis Biologicals

According to the Alliance for Human Research Protection, there were a number of adverse event reports, but the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has rejected a Freedom of Information request to release the reports. The adverse events could be very minor things or they could be very severe — and if the state is going to decide to give consent for infants, it should certainly be required to make the adverse event reports and other information the AHRP has requested to examine how well state and federal authorities actually protected the rights and interests of these children.

I’m surprised this isn’t a major story — I guess questionable experiments on children just can’t compete with Janet’s breasts or Ted Kennedy’s outbursts.


Phase I Drug Trials Used Foster Care children in Violation of 45 CFR 46.409 and 21 CFR 50.56. Alliance for Human Research Protection, March 10, 2004.