Sunday, January 25, 2009

Speaking ill of the dead

On 26th December last year, a 52-year old American woman called Christine Maggiore died. The world is a better place without her.

Isn’t that an appalling thing to say? Shouldn’t one only speak well of the dead? Not necessarily. Should we only say good things about Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Idi Amin because they’re dead? No, I think it’s OK to say that we’re glad when someone wicked stops disturbing the world with their foul deeds.

Christine Maggiore was wicked too. Maggiore was an AIDS denialist. Who died of AIDS.

She was HIV positive but instead of campaigning for better treatment, greater research and for public education she founded a deranged group of pseudoscientific charlatans called “Alive & Well” who denied the connection between HIV and AIDS, suggested that the she was still alive because HIV did NOT cause AIDS and that anti-retroviral drugs were of no value.

So far all we have is a fool, but Maggiore went much, much further.

Despite knowing her HIV status and despite the overwhelming evidence of the dangers she refused to take the appropriate medication while pregnant and then later decided to breast-feed her children.

When she was only 3 years old her daughter Eliza died of pneumonia, almost certainly brought about by AIDS. Still insisting that she was right she claimed that her daughter instead died from a reaction to an antibiotic. The autopsy disagreed. It showed that Eliza had AIDS encephalitis and PCP, the variety of pneumonia most associated with AIDS. In short it showed that her mother had killed her with neglect.

Sometimes people ask where the harm in so-called “alternative medicine” and denialism can be found. They think it’s just a few harmless homeopathic remedies bought by the gullible. They think that a few herbs here or there never did anybody any harm. Well, in most cases that’s perfectly true. Nobody ever died from taking a homeopathic remedy, simply because they don’t contain any remedies, they’re just water. Few people will come to any harm from taking some herbs sold by a quack.

However, every so often someone will take one of these remedies instead of something that works. Every so often someone will fall for the denialist claptrap we see and stop taking their real medication, the one that works. Then they pay the price, or worse still their children pay it for them.

I confess that in a very cruel moment I was glad that Christine Maggiore survived long enough to see what she’d done to her daughter but then I calmed down. Nobody should have to see that, it’s beyond understanding how terrible that must be.

But it WAS her fault. Science, medicine and rationalism could have saved Eliza’s life but they were all rejected in favour of stupidity, pseudoscience and denialism. There’s the harm.

Monday, January 12, 2009

New Year Sense?

I wonder if it’s too much to hope that 2009 will be a year characterised by rationalism? Is it too much to ask that we start the year committing ourselves, as individuals, as families and as a nation to being realistic, thoughtful and rational?

Sometimes I think it IS too much to hope but I’m an optimist.

I hope that this year we can put the so-called alternative, or complementary medical community in it’s place. I hope we can see that there’s no such thing as “conventional medicine” or “alternative medicine”. There is only medicine that works and that which doesn’t. There are drugs that help you recover from illnesses are those that don’t. It doesn’t matter whether they came from a test tube or tree bark. Some have been shown, by experiment, by research, by science to work and others have not. It really IS that simple.

I hope we can put behind us the whole “detox” nonsense. A study by a UK group called Sense about Science published just after Christmas showed that almost all the so-called detox products on the market in the UK (and they’re available in Botswana as well) made ludicrous claims that were totally unsupported by the facts. The group also state that the suppliers of these silly products “were forced to admit that they are renaming mundane things, like cleaning or brushing, as ‘detox’”.

None of us need to “detox”, it’s just a made up term used to push pseudoscience and, more importantly, to sell us useless products. The secret the detox industry don’t want you and me to know is that we all already have nature’s greatest detoxifier. It’s called a liver. All it needs is clean water and a fairly healthy diet and it will clean out the toxins for you. For free.

Maybe this year we can also ignore all the silly conspiracy theories about medicine. The conspiracy theories that lead to illness, misery and death. AIDS is not a conspiracy by the CIA or aliens. Vaccinations are a truly wonderful way to protect children and adults from illness and are not another conspiracy to enslave the poor. The medical profession aren’t evil oppressors doing their best to keep us in bondage.

We should remember our local example of what modern medicine can do. Our PMTCT program reduced the proportion of babies born with HIV to HIV positive mothers from 40% to 4%. It was modern medicine that did that, not superstition, denial or a conspiracy.

Perhaps this year we can also do away with the more revolting aspects of corrupt religion. Maybe we can all see that a preacher to whom you give money who then drives a hugely expensive car and lives in a dream home is almost certainly a liar, a thief and a crook. Maybe we can see that a significant number of religious leaders, particularly those in the American TV evangelist mould, are just in it for the cash. They really do see their flock as sheep: stupid, woolly-headed and ready for slaughter.

Is it too much to ask that we can all be a little bit more skeptical in 2009? That we can use our heads before we give away our money, our health and our beliefs? I hope so.