A mysterious epidemic, which has been discovered in homosexual men, is causing increasing concern in the United States. The unknown condition, which consists of two separate diseases - a form of pneumonia and skin cancer, has been found in 180 patients in 15 states since last July. It has claimed around 75 lives so far in the US and up to 92% of the victims are homosexual men.
[Note: "It" was already an "epidemic" after only 75 deaths. The "highly esteemed" (as the Goon Show's Wallace Greenslade called it), and always authoritative (sounding) BBC goes on to say "the mystery disease" was caused by a virus three and a half years before Reagan's White House announced it.]
Decades and many billions later, one of the more amusing of the inevitable consequences of this Fourth Estate prescience is described below:
In the rarefied world of AIDS research,
things just get more pure, elegant and untouched by reality every day.
So of course it comes as no surprise that scientists have managed to
invent a process completely uncontaminated by logic: “sperm washing.”
The idea took off in the mid-1990s,
when people started noticing that HIV-positive men (1) were not always
gay and (2) were going to have all this time on their hands before the
new treatments called “HAART” destroyed their livers. Why
not, then, procreate? When somebody thought of charging money
for the privilege, congratulations!—It’s a business.
Making a baby is, for most of us, fun. It’s also free, except for the Barry White albums. But for HIV-positive men in the Special Program of Assisted Reproduction (SPAR), it is neither fun nor free: The estimated cost for the “sperm washing” and in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure, above and beyond the testing part covered by the Boston-based Bedford Research Foundation, is around $6,000. The Foundation assures its clients that all money paid goes back into the research project. (Believe it or not, the NIH, which apparently never met a weird AIDS idea it didn’t like, doesn’t fund this.)
The road to the first baby born,
Boston-area “Baby Ryan” in 1999, was no easy one. The program’s
head scientist, Dr. Ann Kiessling, had quite a hurdle to get over when,
in 1991, the CDC declared sperm washing too risky. There is just
too much chance of passing on HIV. For this reason, the Foundation
takes no chances. It makes clear several times on its Web site that
the program only accepts semen and sperm with “undetectable HIV.”
If it’s clean already, doesn’t
that mean there is no reason to wash it? Not surprisingly, Bedford
reports no cases of HIV-positive moms or babies among its 64 births.
Why it even matters that the semen—you may recall this as the liquid
that sperm floats around in—is “infected” is not clear: In some
cases, they simply isolate the sperm from the semen anyway, fertilize
an egg in a Petri dish, and perform an IVF.
The Foundation likes to write knowingly about the two types of “infections” in semen: the free virus just floating around and the virus carried around by white blood cells. “The source of HIV infection in semen, either free virus or virus infected cells, remains unknown, despite many years of research in this area,” writes the Foundation. Then why not just give up? Maybe there’s no “infection” at all. But the Bedford scientists claim to know, even beyond this, that “the free virus particles present in semen are produced by a source of infection separate from the one that produces the infected cells.”
If the “burden of virus and infected cells varies widely from one specimen to the next,” from the same person, reasonable people might assume that something is wrong with the test—but not our intrepid Bedford scientists. They also notice a “differential” between the viral “burdens” in blood and semen. And still they assume that the test is correct and that it measures actual infection.
Once again, the moment we turn around, these kids are playing with dangerous lab toys like microscopes and “hemocytometers.” And processes with big names like “specialized molecular biology tests.” But it’s all just pretending, because they are yet again playing with their imaginary friends Viral Load and Sexual Transmission. In case you have never been introduced, viral load (“burden”) tests pick up nothing but genetic debris that may or may not be attached to real, live virus. Sexual transmission of HIV has never been proven.
But the Bedford people claim to be developing a better viral load test, one they repeatedly imply picks up actual virus. The FDA might wish to examine this, because neither HIV antibody testing nor the PCR-based viral load test detects actual infection by a virus, and neither is approved for this purpose. Then again, some people claim that Big Foot exists because they’ve seen footprints in the woods.
It’s all just experimental, meaning,
exempt from FDA oversight. Most likely, all the participants sign
a waiver stating that they know it’s a research project.
Even so, the names and locations of cooperating fertility clinics are secret. Bedford claims this is because they are “controversial.” Are they illegal? Under investigation? Housed in secret abortion clinics within shooting range of fundamentalist churches?
Also, Bedford used to be called the Assisted Reproduction Foundation, an “independent Massachusetts public charity.” Independent thinkers want to know . . . Why did it have to change its name? As of Dec. 1, 2006, interested couples have been required to meet with Dr. Kiessling herself for their screening interview.
Most laughable is the assertion that enrolled couples make an “informed decision about treatment,” as if even the people doing the informing have any idea what they are talking about. Viral burdens, infections, and tests with long names notwithstanding, it’s all a fantasy.
Curiously, part of the workup includes testing for circulating antibodies against measles and rubella, which are generally considered a sign of immunity from these diseases—a good thing for pregnancy. On the other hand, they obviously believe that HIV antibodies are a sign of lack of immunity. Only in a sheltered lab setting could one practice both schools of immunology without contaminating the second with the logic of the first.
Elizabeth Ely is a freelance writer and public speaker based in New York City, who has learned all the wrong lessons from being thrown out of a major Protestant church. She is working on a book about the religious nature of AIDS-think.