Unraveling AIDS Denialism — Dr. Lindsay Zafir

by Malina Seenarine

Curious about the prominence of science denialism in the United States, Dr. Lindsay Zafir decided to focus her research on AIDS denialism, the idea that HIV does not cause AIDS. Zafir’s Ph.D. dissertation, titled State of Denial, examines the history of AIDS denialism in the United States and what it can tell us about the increase in science denialism in recent years. 

The distinguished lecturer in anthropology and interdisciplinary studies at City College argues that the response to science denialism is politically polarized. The liberal response is to believe in science by default and the conservative response is to be skeptical and untrusting of science. Denialists are often seen as people who are against science or just need more facts, but Zafir found that AIDS denialists respected certain scientists and doctors and mobilized an alternative set of facts.

“Understanding that should shift the way that we respond to science denialists. Instead of just pummeling them with the facts, we should seek to understand the deeper reasons people are drawn to denialism” Zafir said in an interview with The RICC.

AIDS denialism attracted diverse groups of people from the 1980s through the 2000s. The movement was started by gay men who were skeptical of the government, scientists, and the media due to their inadequate response to the AIDS epidemic. AIDS denialist theories later spread to some HIV-positive mothers, mainstream scientists, political libertarians, and members of the South African government. 

When it came to AIDS treatment, some AIDS denialists believed that the first antiretroviral used to treat HIV, Zidovudine, commonly known as AZT, a type of drug used to prevent different stages of HIV making it unable to duplicate itself, caused AIDS. Others believed AIDS was caused by an accumulation of sexually transmitted diseases, which wore down the body’s immune system over time, or by the effects of poverty or drug use on the body.

Dr. Lindsay Zafir

Zafir’s research also examines the negative effects of AIDS denialism. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, South African President Thabo Mbeki promoted AIDS denialist theories and appointed denialists to his Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel. This was influential in shaping South African policy around AIDS, including the decision to restrict access to antiretrovirals at public hospitals and clinics. Scholars estimate that over 300,000 people died because of Mbeki’s policies on AIDS, according to Zafir.

In the United States, there are over 1.2 million people with HIV and more than 700,000 people have died from HIV-related causes since the first case was reported in 1981. 

Zafir concluded that a large reason that science denialism thrives is the failure of the government and media to respond to the crises people are facing in their day-to-day lives. She theorized that when there is no trust in those institutions, it creates a lot of room for misinformation to spread and gain traction.  

“What all of the people who embrace denialism have in common is a critique of the government and the ways that money and politics have influence on the government and scientists,” Zafir said. 

Zafir is currently working on a book proposal for her research.

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