2 min

HEAL’s dissenting group-think

The cure for the drug industry's rut isn't another rut

The pharmaceutical industry operates on a frustratingly closed logic, as tightly formulized as a Harlequin novel or a porn scene.

The story opens with a diagnosis which transforms a person into a patient. Then there’s the treatment. Since modern medicine’s good luck with the eradication of small pox, we’ve gotten over our expectation for cures. Or even our expectation that the benefits of treatment will greatly outweigh awful side effects.

The maintenance of chronic illness through costly drug regimes has become a rule, a profitable one for the pharmaceutical industry, just like the rule that software companies offer us repeated upgrades, rather than crashproof product.

This month, when five global pharmaceutical companies cut as much as 90 percent off the price of some older AIDS drugs for poor nations, it wasn’t surprising that a prime motivation was the prevention of the development of generic alternatives. The fact that these companies could pass up so much revenue without claiming it would hurt research and development – and without bothering to lower the prices enough to be affordable – demonstrates that it’s a system operating well beyond the pale of compassion, good public health practice or even reality.

All of which makes the proposals of the group HEAL (Health Education AIDS Liaison) and the newly incarnated ACT UP so appealling. If every twist of the AIDS narrative is disturbing, the answer should be to question every step of the AIDS industry.

Members of HEAL depict themselves as free-thinking critics, kicking against capitalist group-think. The problem is that HEAL advocates fall prey to their own relentless logic, a group-think against group-think that makes as many strange and self-serving logical leaps as the industry it targets.

The HEAL view goes something like this: The HIV virus has never been isolated, so there is no proof that it causes AIDS. So the HIV test is a red herring designed to suck people into the world of high-priced chronic illness. Drugs target HIV and, therefore, should be avoided as unnecessary and toxic.

It goes on. If HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, then worrying about transmission of HIV through unprotected sex isn’t important. But that’s not to say people should stop using condoms because there are other sexually transmitted diseases out there; safe sex is as good a habit as any.

With a few simple steps, HEAL explains away HIV, but asks that we don’t change our attitudes toward HIV prevention. On this point, HEAL spokespeople demonstrate an uneasiness with their own conclusions. They try to have it both ways, which is less a sign of fiesty dissent than an indication of people desperate for any truth other than the mainstream one.

None of what they say offers much liberation from the fact that people died of AIDS, continue to die of AIDS, toxic drugs or not. That drugs are not the only solution, but that better, cheaper drugs can indeed help.

Mark Wainberg, a Montreal physician and president of the International AIDS Society, wants laws to prevent people from denying that HIV causes AIDS. This is silly. The AIDS industry deserves all the criticism it can get.

The unfortunately thing is that it’s all become so formulaic.

Paul Gallant is Features Editor for Xtra.