Folio Weekly - Jacksonville, Florida; Gwynedd Stuart
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No Closer to a Cure
A new AIDS documentary leaves us with more questions than answers

Saturday, May 16 at 10 a.m.
5 Points Theatre

Just prior to the closing credits of Brent Leung’s “House of Numbers,” the famous Arthur Schopenhauer quotation appears on the screen: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” It’s unclear whether the controversial information presented in the documentary will ever be accepted as self-evident, as the German philosopher promised, but it’s sure to face some opposition.

Leung, a self-described product of the first generation to grow up in the era of AIDS, interviews a collection of AIDS experts — from scientists to journalists to people who’ve lived with the disease for decades — to answer questions that have long surrounded this deadly disease. In the end, he draws three bold conclusions: HIV/AIDS tests are at best flawed, and probably inaccurate; doctor-prescribed remedies are deadly in their own right; and global HIV/AIDS statistics have been inflated to the point of absurdity. The audience is left to wonder, “Does HIV even exist? And if it does, does it actually cause AIDS?”

Interviews with passersby from England to Africa make clear that the average person isn’t 100 percent sure what constitutes the difference between HIV and AIDS. More disturbing are myriad experts Leung inter- views — from organizations including UNAIDS and the Centers for Disease Control — who are unable to define exactly what HIV and AIDS really are. There are approximately 12 different definitions of AIDS worldwide, which essentially means a person could be diagnosed positive in one country and not in another. And methods for testing have been discovered to have a large margin for error, especially in many African nations where so-called “rapid” blood tests are used in conjunction with personal information to diagnose patients. For instance, you’re more likely to be diagnosed as being HIV positive if you’ve had unprotected sex, use intravenous drugs or are homosexual. In some instances, posi- tive test results are followed up with nega- tive results, then indeterminate results, then positive results again, leading one expert to wonder aloud, “How can we say HIV causes AIDS when we don’t know if anyone actually has HIV?”

As far as what causes AIDS, some theories presented in the film sound outrageous, at least initially, to members of the generation brought up to regard the disease as a sort of homicidal juggernaut. One doctor asserts that the AIDS epidemic that swept the gay community in the early ’80s was the result of amyl nitrate abuse in the form of “poppers,” which appear to have caused — in conjunction with other behaviors and STDs that weaken the immune system, two of the most prominent indicators of AIDS: pneumocystis pneumonia and Kaposi’s sar- coma. One expert insists that AIDS isn’t a single disease, but rather a bunch of diseases; he claims it’s simply been easier for the public safety PR machine to label it as only one. What actually kills people, the film asserts, are the toxic treatments AIDS patients are given, many of which produce side effects that can be mistaken for symptoms of the disease itself.

Of course, not everyone in the medical community agrees that AIDS and HIV are some grand fallacy. Robert Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology, laughs as he insists, “What can I tell you? It exists.”

Of course, the science of HIV/AIDS can’t be settled in a documentary film, a medium that speaks a dramatic, not clinical language. And the film has already been criticized by some prominent researchers, who labeled it AIDS Denialism and fear it may encourage people at risk of infection to ignore prevention or treatment. But there’s no question that, despite nearly three decades of research, many fundamental questions about AIDS remain. If nothing else, “House of Numbers” may be the genesis of an interesting dialogue.

Gwynedd Stuart