AIDS Denialism in Russia: How This Destructive Influence Works?
AIDS denialists are people who believe the HIV virus does not exist and that AIDS is caused by an overabundance of factors, such as drugs, malnutrition, stress, or even anal sex by itself. Often such characters say that HIV is a conspiracy of Big Pharma or the “invisible world government”. While their arguments have been long discarded by the international scientific community, AIDS denialists reject scientific facts and claim that all the evidence of HIV existence has been concocted by corrupt scientists.
The emergence of the internet and social media have given a new life to AIDS denialism: people searching for information on the virus find that AIDS-denialist websites or forums are just a click away. Often these sites declare that HIV is a myth and that all you have to do about the disease is forget about it.
HIV infection has grown at an alarming rate in Russia recent years. While science has received a lot of new data on HIV treatment and prevention, most Russians have a stereotypical picture of HIV and AIDS gathered from leaflets and posters in health clinics. Many of them still believe misinformation from early in the AIDS era, when it was thought that HIV-positive persons were highly infectious without sexual protection and that their immune systems linearly decay.
To understand how some HIV-positive individuals become AIDS denialists, Russian data journalists Peter Meylakhs, Yadviga Sinyavskaya and Yuri Rykov undertook a mixed-method investigation of the largest AIDS-denialist community present on Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte. During the project’s execution in 2016, the group estimated around 15,000 members and had existed for nearly eight years.
"To our surprise, we found that the two most-known and hotly debated AIDS denial rhetorical strategies – that HIV science is fake and that it is a product of a global conspiracy – played almost no role in converting individuals to AIDS denialism. These arguments were used as rationalisation for their position, adopted for other reasons.", data journalists say in their 'The Conversation' article.
Three important factors also were determined: denial of the diagnosis because informants “felt good”, inadequate counselling and unwillingness to follow antiretroviral treatment.
"In contrast to their portrayal as being completely irrational, some people who became AIDS denialists asked perfectly rational questions. For example, an HIV-positive woman, who had unprotected sexual intercourse with her husband for eight years, asked how her husband remained HIV-negative. Others wondered how the immune system of an HIV-positive person improved without treatment," write the researchers.
Sadly, their study shows that little can be done to support hardcore AIDS denialists. Attempts to better inform them only strengthened their false beliefs.
All study participants who were former AIDS denialists agreed that it was only when their physical condition had worsened dramatically – some of them had balanced betwixt life and death – that they understood that AIDS was real. Just then did they seek therapy. Sometimes the change of heart was too late; several group members died of AIDS despite eventually seeking treatment.
The best way to prevent individuals from being tempted by AIDS denialism is to provide good quality, patient-centred counselling and appropriately manage treatment side effects.
For those who are still in the midst of denialism, the research came up with the following proposal: “Believe whatever you want but check your immune status. Just in case.” This can help deliver a patient closer to getting care, hopefully before it’s too late.