Early in January, Bryan Fischer, issues analyst with the American Family Association, threw his support behind the belief that HIV does not cause AIDS. On his daily talk show, Fischer hosted University of California, Berkeley professor Peter Duesberg, who is the principal proponent of the theory that HIV is a harmless virus and that AIDS is the result of lifestyle choices, such as drug use and promiscuity, which weaken the immune system. Duesberg says that gay men are at special risk since they use drugs and engage in casual sex more so than other groups.

In a column on the AFA website, Fischer wrote:

So what is the cause of what we know as AIDS? What is the cause of this condition that is killing people? Duesberg’s answer can be found in one word: drugs.

And specifically, drug use connected with the kind of sex that is far too common in the homosexual community. While the average heterosexual has somewhere between seven to 14 sexual partners in a lifetime, it is not uncommon for homosexuals to have hundreds, even thousands, of sexual partners. 

By partnering with Duesberg, Fischer brought AIDS denialism closer to the mainstream of evangelicalism. In response, Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay recently issued a statement to me about Fischer’s and Duesberg’s denial of the HIV-AIDS link. Among evangelicals, the Warrens have been pioneers in outreach to AIDS victims. The Warrens' statement is powerful and decisive. It is reproduced here in full:

Since AIDS was first discovered in 1981, 30 years of non-stop scientific research by the US military, the medical community, our government, and by every international health organization has proven over and over, with countless irrefutable results, that ONLY people with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) develop AIDS. To imply the disease is caused by anything besides HIV is quack science, like claiming the earth is flat, or the moon is made of cheese. Since 1985, when the virus that creates AIDS was isolated, every doctor on the planet, except Peter Duesberg, has known that HIV is the only cause of AIDS.

Duesberg’s denial of the entire body of research, and his rejection of thousands of scientific trials and papers, would be laughable if millions of lives weren’t at stake. But his view is deadly.  Unfortunately, Duesberg convinced some people in Africa that HIV was not the cause of AIDS and as a result many people there needlessly became infected with the virus, and some have subsequently suffered and died.

It is frustrating – and frightening – for those of us in AIDS ministry to see someone like Dr. Duesberg play to people’s bias and prejudices. For the past eight years we have worked with thousands of churches around the world and in America who have ministries to those infected and affected by AIDS. No one deserves this illness, and we must not ignore those among us who are infected or affected by HIV and AIDS. There are numerous ways to acquire the virus – sexual activity, blood transfusions, being born to an HIV positive mother, dirty needles  but what matters isn’t  how a person became infected as much as how we will respond. People with living with the virus are people that Jesus created, loves, and died for. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan teaches us that when you find someone bleeding on the side of the road, you don’t say “Was it your fault?” You just help them in love!

Let’s be very careful about what reality we deny; lives are at stake.

When the Warrens write that Duesberg convinced some in Africa that HIV and AIDS were not related, they are referring to the period of AIDS denial in South Africa from 2000 to 2005. In 2000, Duesberg was invited by South African President Thabo Mbeki to provide advice on AIDS policy. Subsequently, the South African government displayed antagonism toward AIDS treatment and prevention programs which involved anti-retro viral drugs (ARVs). Nicolo Nattrass, writing in African Affairs, said that President Mbeki questioned the science behind the epidemic. However, the consequences were devastating. According to a Harvard University press release and a study from the journal African Affairs, over 330,000 deaths could have been prevented if ARVs had been used. The Harvard release, citing a 2008 study, added that 35,000 babies were born with HIV due to failure to implement appropriate drug based prevention programs.

If anything, the African epidemic provides evidence counter to Duesberg’s theory. The epidemic there is driven by heterosexual activity. The stereotype about gay men spreading HIV via lots of drugs and sex is not applicable there.

Given what is at stake, the Warrens' statement is important. The American Family Association has a sizable audience which includes GOP presidential candidates. Confusion over something as basic as what causes AIDS could become a barrier to the progress made in ministry and treatment for those with HIV/AIDS. As Rev. and Mrs. Warren remind us, lives are at stake.