16. Fallibility of the AIDS Test

Published: Updated:

Sources: NEW YORK NATIVE, Dates: 8/15/94, 8/29/94, Titles: “Widow sues blood bank over misdiagnosis” and “Ohio woman awarded $100,000 after error in HIV antibody test”; LONDON SUNDAY TIMES, Date: 8/1/93, Title: “New doubts over Aids infec­tion as HIV test declared invalid,” Author: Neville Hodgkinson

SSU Censored Researcher: Jennifer Bums

SYNOPSIS: In July 1994, the widow of a man who committed suicide sued an Augusta, Georgia, blood bank claiming an erroneous HIV positive diagnosis drove her husband to kill himself.

In August 1994, a woman who had a hysterectomy after a blood test falsely indicated she had the “AIDS virus,” was awarded $100,000 for the surgical procedure and emotional distress in a Court of Claims in Ohio.

Both cases, and other similar cases, were reported in the New York Native, a publication which covers gay and lesbian issues, but were not widely reported in the mainstream media.

The potential importance of the issue was noted by Phillip E. Johnson, University of California, Berkeley, law professor, who cited the immense damage the diagnosis of HIV-positive can do to a person, as well as the impact of product lia­bility suits against test manufac­turers. Johnson said that successful product liability lawsuits against the manufacturers of the HIV anti­body tests could put the test makers out of business. He noted that the hysterectomy case appears to be just one of many in which faulty HIV antibody test results have injured people in such a way that they would have grounds to sue the test’s manufacturer.

The problem of faulty HIV tests was front-page headline news in the London Sunday Times in August 1993, but did not make major news in the U.S. The Sunday Times reported: “The Aids test’ is scien­tifically invalid and incapable of determining whether people are really infected with HIV, according to a new report by a team of Australian scientists who have con­ducted the first extensive review of research surrounding the test

.”Doctors should think again about its use, say the authors. ‘A positive HIV status has such pro­found implications that nobody should be required to bear this burden without solid guarantees of the verity of the test and its inter­pretation,’ they conclude.

“The findings, likely to cause intense debate in the medical frater­nity and anguish for many HIV-posi­tive people, are contained in an article published by the respected science journal, Biotechnology. “Many people who appear to be infected with HIV, say the researchers, can be suffering from other conditions such as malaria or malnutrition that produce a positive result in the test. Even flu jabs can produce the same effect. As a result, predictions by the World Health Organization (WHO) that millions are set to die because of being HIV positive may be wildly inaccurate.”

Law professor Johnson warns that “if the underlying science (of the HIV test) is ever called into question, as I think it is being called into question right now, then the possibility that a huge, massive harm has been done by bad sci­ence, is going to create a great reac­tion from the public.”

COMMENTS: Responding for New York Native, Neenyah Ostrom said “One of the reasons this sub­ject did not receive the exposure it should have is that most science reporters have grown used to quoting government press releases without questioning the facts con­tained in them. AIDS is fright­ening; a story that suggests that the AIDS test’ doesn’t work 100 per­cent of the time is even more frightening. And because the gov­ernment scientists managing the AIDS epidemic don’t want to frighten people, any reporter who questions the facts released by them is soon cut off from official sources of information (like scien­tists at NIH).

“Another unfortunate trend fig­ures into the lack of exposure received by this story: many science writers have become quasi public health spokespeople. Rather than casting a critical eye on question­able information or data provided by public health officials, they assist their sources in molding public opinion.”

Ostrom believes that the “amount of needless human suf­fering that arises from people receiving false positive HIV anti­body test results would be reduced if the public knew the test is not 100 percent reliable. People have had all kinds of drastic reactions to being told they are HIV-positive: they’ve committed suicide, and murder; people have been arrested and convicted of crimes on the basis of positive HIV antibody tests; lives and livelihoods have been destroyed. If people under­stood that a positive test result might very possibly be a mistake, these drastic actions might decrease.”

The most obvious beneficiaries of the lack of coverage given this story are the manufacturers of the HIV antibody test kits, both those already on the market and the impending home test kit, according to Ostrom. “But the people man­aging the epidemic for the govern­ment also benefit, because they can keep their message simple: `Take the test.’ If the public begins to doubt the `AIDS test,’ the story becomes more complicated and, therefore, more difficult to manage.

“A story that goes hand-in-hand with this story, and that has also received minimal coverage, is that there is a growing number of scien­tists who doubt that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS. These scientists have been called a threat to the public health for not toeing the official line on AIDS. If what we’ve reported about the unreliability of the HIV antibody test is true, the public may begin to suspect that much of what they’ve been told about AIDS is unreliable.

“One of the newest groups to suffer as a result of the censorship of this story is pregnant women. Pregnant women who test positive on the HIV antibody test are now being advised to take a very toxic drug, AZT, while they are pregnant, to prevent their babies from being infected in the womb. Now, only about 15 percent of babies born to HIV positive women turn out to be HIV-positive anyway, but on the basis of a test that doesn’t work very well, these women are being advised to take a very toxic-even carcinogenic-drug. Nobody knows what AZT does to a child exposed to it before birth. I think if these women knew how unreliable the HIV antibody test is, they would be less inclined to take AZT while they are pregnant.”

Meanwhile, despite the poten­tial problems, proposals to test all new hospital patients in the U.S. on a voluntary basis were being discussed as the year ended. In a report published in the Journal o f the American Medical Association (JAMA), released 12/21/94, ana­lysts said such a program could detect nearly 170,000 unrevealed infections among patients; it also could yield more than 30,000 “false positives.”