Accuracy in Media

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has won a laudatory story from the New York Times for contributing another quarter of a billion dollars “to speed the lagging development of an HIV vaccine.” In 1984, the Times noted, Margaret M. Heckler, President Ronald Reagan’s health and human services secretary, and Dr. Robert Gallo, a discoverer of the virus, “predicted an H.I.V. vaccine by 1986.” Why no success?

Times medical reporter Lawrence K. Altman, the author of the story, exhibited no interest in answering that question. In total, the U.S. has spent about $200 billion on HIV/AIDS-and an AIDS vaccine-since 1981.

Can you imagine any other federal effort of this magnitude that would be spared from serious criticism? The explanation, of course, lies in the fact that spending on AIDS is politically protected. The more money spent, the better. That was the policy under Clinton and it has been continued under Bush. This “bridge to nowhere” gets more money, not less.

Altman, who used to work for the federal Centers for Disease Control, has been criticized in the past for failing to quote critics of federal health efforts. His recent story was no exception. In positive terms, it noted that the new Gates commitment would bring to $528 million the amount of money invested by the Gates foundation in an AIDS vaccine, and that the federal National Institutes of Health has spent $3.4 billion on the idea.

Altman also said that “Although more than 30 experimental H.I.V. vaccines have been tested in people, only one has completed full-scale testing. That vaccine, Aidsvax, made by VaxGen, failed in a large trial that ended in 2003.” What has happened to the guinea pigs in those 30 HIV vaccine tests? Altman didn’t say.

An HIV vaccine works on the principle that giving people a form of the virus that causes AIDS will help them develop immunity without developing the entire deadly disease. But government vaccine programs have backfired in the past. Some believe that contaminated polio vaccines may have led to some cancers and AIDS in humans. And back in the 1970s, the government used a swine-flu vaccine on millions of people, only to find out later that it was causing health problems and even death.

The evidence is still a subject of dispute, but vaccines with mercury have been linked in some studies to cases of autism in children.

UPI, one of the few news organizations to report extensively on the problems associated with vaccines, recently quoted Rep. Dave Weldon, a medical doctor, as saying, “Federal agencies charged with overseeing vaccine safety have failed.”

While it is believed by some that an AIDS vaccine might be voluntary, since it is largely a sexually transmitted disease and people get it through lifestyle choices, the federal government currently requires that children receive the Hepatitis B vaccine, which is supposed to guard against a mostly sexually transmitted disease. There are also calls to force young people to take a new vaccine, Gardasil, to combat the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to cervical cancer in women.

Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center, a group concerned about vaccine safety, warns, “HPV vaccine now. HIV vaccine next.” An HIV/AIDS vaccine could be made mandatory, for children as well as adults, despite the fact that some experts still insist that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and AIDS tests can be extremely unreliable.

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