Nov 01 1999

The Fumento Mythology

Hudson Institute fellow twists science to minimize AIDS

Hudson Institute fellow twists science to minimize AIDS

A decade after writing The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, Michael Fumento of the Hudson Institute continues to minimize and skew the AIDS crisis.

Fumento is a virtual poster child for what right-wing institutions can foster: Prior to joining Hudson, he’s had stints at the American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was legal writer at the Unification Church-owned Washington Times and science writer at Reason magazine. Prior to that, he was a staffer with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under Reagan.

In an op-ed in the Washington Times (6/8/99), Fumento was happy to proclaim that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had found fewer new AIDS cases–for a rather perverse reason: It proves to him that he was right all along. He now claims that because there has been a 20 percent decline in new U.S. AIDS cases over the last year, “the bottom is truly falling out of the epidemic,” and since heterosexual AIDS cases continue at 14 percent of the total, there was never a threat of a wider epidemic.

Fumento was able to put a cheerful spin on the numbers by focusing only on the number of people with full-blown AIDS–ignoring that the number of people newly infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is holding steady at 40,000 per year. Unmentioned by Fumento: one major reason for the decline in new AIDS cases in the U.S. is the success of protease inhibitors, which slow the progression of the disease. Actually, his piece was somewhat ill-timed, since shortly thereafter reports surfaced that “the past few years’ decrease is slowing down at an alarming rate,” since drug treatments have “lost their effectiveness as the virus becomes resistant to new drugs.”(Time, 9/13/99)

Fumento mocks “the second biggest obsession, teen-agers”–noting that they are only 0.6 percent of new cases. Of course there are relatively few teens with AIDS, since it generally takes about 10 years for the disease to develop. (They constitute 2 percent of reported HIV infections, or about three times as great a proportion.)

Fumento notes that of the 297 U.S. teens reported with AIDS, 68 were in the heterosexual contact category. But if you bother doing the math, that’s 23 percent–higher than the 14 percent for all age groups, suggesting that down the line AIDS contracted via heterosexual contact will continue to constitute a greater portion of the total. “Though the number of AIDS deaths has in the last few years decreased abruptly due to the new drug treatments, the percentage of AIDS deaths attributable to heterosexual contact has continued to rise slowly but steadily,” notes Peter Lurie, a doctor at Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

Fumento takes great delight in chastising “homosexual activists [who] are now admitting they literally conspired to exaggerate the threat to the general population.” No example of such an admission from “homosexuals,” as he insists on calling them, is given; while there certainly may have been instances in which lesbian and gay advocates fell into an undifferentiated “everyone is at risk” argument, the highest profile activist group, ACT UP, generally stressed that it was stigmatized groups–gay men, poor people of color and IV drug-users–who had the highest risk of both contracting and dying from HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

More troubling, “general population” seems to be Fumento’s code for well-to-do straight white people. When he notes the ethnic disparities (they’re tough to miss; the cover of the CDC report he cites features a graph showing that there are now as many blacks with AIDS as whites), he does so in such a way as to tell European-American readers that they need not worry–or care. It’s someone else’s problem, so it’s not really a problem.

This approach explains why Fumento can limit his critique almost totally to the United States. According to the head of the U.N. program on HIV and AIDS (NPR, 9/17/99), “every day, Africa buries now five and a half thousand of its sons and daughters who have died from AIDS.” The vast majority of this toll stems from heterosexual transmission, and both HIV and actual AIDS cases are increasing in Africa. These deaths–which total in the millions–do not result in any apology from Fumento for talking about “the myth of heterosexual AIDS.”

Think Tank Monitor is a joint project of FAIR and the Institute for Public Accuracy ( Research assistance and special thanks to Bob Lederer.