Why Are So Many Black Women Dying of AIDS?, by Laurie Shrage

Why Are So Many Black Women Dying of AIDS?, by Laurie Shrage

Postby admin » Mon Jan 04, 2016 8:54 pm

Why Are So Many Black Women Dying of AIDS?
By LAURIE SHRAGE
DEC. 11, 2015

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Credit Sophie Lécuyer

THE injustices caused by racial profiling in law enforcement, and bias in criminal prosecution and sentencing, are now a subject of significant public attention. And they should be. The loss of life and liberty from these practices is shameful and tragic. But it is critical that we do not overlook the significant evidence showing that the end result of these practices — the mass incarceration of nonwhite men — may also be fueling an urgent public health crisis among some of the most disadvantaged members of our society.

Although African-Americans represent about 12 percent of the United States’ population, they account for roughly half of all new infections and deaths from H.I.V./AIDS. The H.I.V. infection rate among black women is 20 times higher than for white women, and in 2004, H.I.V./AIDS was the leading cause of death for black women ages 25-34. During a 2007 Democratic primary debate, Hillary Clinton called attention to this statistic and asserted: “If H.I.V./AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.”

Given that men who have sex with men account for a majority of H.I.V. cases among both black and white men, the spike in H.I.V. infections among black women has perplexed public health officials. Because most gay men do not have female sexual partners and there are relatively low rates of infection among nonblack women, and because rates of injection drug use or unprotected sex among black women are no higher than for other groups, the rapid increase in H.I.V./AIDS cases among black women has been hard to account for. But several public health studies now suggest that because people tend to select sex partners from within their own communities, higher rates of H.I.V. among men who have been in prison may raise the risk of infection in their community.

The ʺConspiracy of Cellsʺ

ROBERT: Plus, they were growing in cattle naturally, and we were using fetal calf serum as growth medium for every cell culture in the world. . . . The theory was that since these were extracted from fetuses, they were sterile, but in fact, they weren't.

Because the AIDS virus and BLV-I and II were being transferred in the gene lines. And so they were potentially transferring these viruses into every tissue culture throughout the world. . . .

So it gets very mixed up. You've got to read a book called 'Conspiracy of Cells,' by Michael Gold. [21] This is a story about Walter Nelson Reese who worked in the highest containment laboratory in the NIH - the BSL 4 lab. That's where they keep their tissue cultures, and they had like 300 to 400 of them. And in 1981, Walter Nelson Reese published a paper [in 'Science'] saying that over a third of them were Henrietta-Lack-cell-contaminated cell lines.

Henrietta Lack was a black lady who worked at Hopkins in the late 1950s. She died around 1965 or so while she was still working there. . . [from] a tumor of the uterus that literally ate her alive. And that tissue was the first human tissue that was grown in perpetuity in tissue cultures. Because up till then, they would only grow one or two divisions and then die, and her tissue called HELA - that's where HELA comes from, Henrietta Lack - was the first [cancer cells] that would grow in tissue cultures.

Now those cell lines were sent all over the world, and what happened was that scientists were contaminating their tissue culture cells with HELA accidentally. And in the early 1970s, I think '72 under Nixon, the Russians sent us six cell lines that they thought contained human cancer-causing viruses. And those were sent to Walter Nelson Reese who was the keeper of the cell lines in the United States. He was in San Francisco, and it was his job to keep the cell lines straight and not contaminate them.

That was [during] the great "war on cancer," that's where all this stuff came from. The NIH was funded in '72 with billions of dollars to find the cancer virus. . . .

Nixon was trying to steal the show from [Teddy] Kennedy by coming up with a virus and vaccine against cancer. They said, "Let's find a virus." So that's where the big cancer virus hypothesis came from.

Now when we got these six cell lines from the Russians. . . Reese started looking at them and discovered that they were all female; then he discovered that they were all black. And so he questioned, 'How many black females are there in Moscow who have cancer?' And, of course, what he discovered was that these were all Henrietta Lack cell contaminants that contained monkey viruses. And so all that stuff the Russians sent us was in fact a fraud. But. . . it was a very embarrassing thing because they thought they had got there first, and what we proved was that they were awful scientists.

So then what Walter Nelson Reese did is that he started looking at all the cell lines of the United States, and closely. And [then he] discovered that at the NIH, over a third of them were HELA contaminated.

What happened was that when they would open their tissue culture lids, they would aerosolize small particles into the air. They would float around and drop into another cell line, and HELA's so aggressive that it will literally take over. And so it just takes one cell to drop into another cell line and it takes over, and it amalgamates, and those were called HELA contaminated.

And so what the NIH did to him [Dr. Reese] was, of course, defunded him and put him out of business. Because he proved they were all a bunch of idiots.

LEN: Oh - I see.

ROBERT: So then the problem was you had a whole bunch of HELA-contaminated cell lines floating around and being sent out as clean cell lines and they weren't; they were actually human cancer malignant cell lines, and some of them contained viruses that were from other species.

And so it represented a big problem. Plus, they were throwing in fetal calf serum which was contaminated with these bovine viruses.

So you had a mixture for a natural [disaster]. I mean, the thing is, like they said in the '72 conferences, it's a wonder that we don't have worse disasters. You just wonder why we haven't been annihilated by these idiots.

If, for instance, you look at the tissue cell culture that was used to determine x-ray tolerance of human tissue, it turns out it's a HELA-contaminated cell line. Which means the most radiation-resistant cell line in the world is used as the standard to determine how much radiation a human should be exposed to!

LEN: Unreal.

ROBERT: Well, that's all documented in 'Conspiracy of Cells' by Michael Gold. . . . Walter Nelson Reese now runs an art gallery. They put him out of business. . . .

The ʺPatient Zeroʺ Theory

LEN: All right, let's get back. . . to the situation with AIDS. What about the "patient zero theory?"

ROBERT: That's nonsense. First off, this guy lived in Canada and flew primarily in Canadian cities, yet you must propose that he only had sex in American cities because the disease broke out in specific American cities where he allegedly had sex.

In addition, it doesn't make any sense if you look at the time frame. AIDS broke out in '78 in Manhattan and then in '80 in San Francisco. It didn't break out in Montreal in '79, or in Toronto, in Quebec, or Ontario in '80, whatever. It broke out in select cities in the United States in a select time frame which corresponds exactly to the hepatitis B study. [22]

LEN: OK. Let's talk about that study for a minute. If you could conceive of a way that vaccine could have been contaminated, how could it have happened?

ROBERT: Two ways. One way accidentally and one way intentionally.

LEN: All right then, elaborate. . . .

ROBERT: Well the vaccine was prepared from gays first off, and then it had plasma expanders that came from cattle added to it.

LEN: So the hepatitis B vaccine is produced through the bovine serum.

ROBERT: Yes. . . . It had expanders put into it as a mechanism of production.

LEN: Like serum?

ROBERT: Yeah, serum. . . . Because they needed to expand the volume.

LEN: Now is the vaccine produced in cow carcases?

ROBERT: No, it's made from humans.

LEN: The hepatitis B vaccine [is made] from the gay men's serum?

ROBERT: And also from straight men's serum.

LEN: OK.

ROBERT: And. . . that's the most interesting thing. Why did they make two separate vaccines?

LEN: Yeah. Why?

ROBERT: Because the epitopes [23] [surface molecules] of hepatitis B [antigens] in gays was different than in straights. . . . So what does that tell you?

LEN: I'm not quite sure.

ROBERT: Well it tells you there's not a lot of exchange going on between the two pools. Because if there were, the hepatitis B would not have separated into two epitopes. So if there was a lot of exchange, the information would have been heterogeneous in the pools, not homogeneous and not different [between homosexual and heterosexual men].

Now suppose you introduce a virus which is transferred like hepatitis B into the gay pool or population. When will it show up in the heterosexual pool?

LEN: I don't know. When?

ROBERT: Well it will take it a long time to show up there, because what you know is that the exchange of information going on between homosexuals and heterosexuals is limited.

So Szmuness was the guy who conducted that study. [22] Szmuness came from Poland, and was educated in Moscow. He somehow managed to escape [from Poland] to the United States with his family in tow, and ended up in New York City. . . as the head of the New York City Blood Bank.

[That is interesting, I thought as I reflected on my recent tour of the National Holocaust Museum in Washington. The Nazis, I learned, had done extensive blood and genetics research in an effort to discriminate and exterminate mixed breeds from their racist and white supremacist world. A Russian-educated Polish researcher with Szmuness's credentials could have best survived Nazi-occupied Poland by joining the Nazi's research effort, or post-Nazi Poland by serving Russia. How did he end up in the United States? I wondered if there was a link between the Nazi effort to exterminate homosexuals and Szmuness's study that targeted gays with allegedly tainted hepatitis B vaccines? The German-owned Merck Company, after all, funded the study and produced the experimental and control vaccines] [22]

LEN: So [still somewhat perplexed, I asked,] that's the theory of unintentional infection?

ROBERT: Well, the fact is that the vaccine could have been prepared in a way that unintentionally infected them. Yes. [But] it might have been intentionally contaminated by somebody [also]. . . . They may have been testing gays trying to develop an immunity against something they knew was already ripping through Africa. . . . It could be that they were testing it just to test it, or it could be that somebody intentionally was trying to exterminate gays, or in our opinion, it could be that their actual goal was to exterminate the United States.

[Strecker's latter remark took me by surprise. It was the first thing he said which to me made no sense.]

LEN: The actual goal was to try to exterminate the United States? And that's one of your most plausible explanations?

ROBERT: Yes.

LEN: And who would have been behind that?

ROBERT: Some foreign party. The Russians or someone who didn't like us. Because the Russians have talked about that for fifty years. There have been KGB biological warfare experts that have been trying to do that to us for fifty years.

[I felt intuitively uncomfortable with Strecker's explanation. I recalled his comments about Walter Nelson Reese which proved the Soviets knew far less about viral biotechnology than American researchers. Moreover, it seemed farfetched to believe the Russians had somehow managed to infiltrate the New York City Blood Center which appeared to be the starting point for the AIDS epidemic in America. This part of Strecker's theory would have required Szmuness, or one of his associates, to have been a secret agent working for Russia.]

LEN: OK, but why would they have started with gays?

ROBERT: For a very obvious reason. And that is because nothing would be done. Just think about this. Suppose you put this virus in the heterosexuals or kids. What kind of response would have occurred compared to the response that did occur?

LEN: Right. That's for sure. Quite different. I appreciate that, but still, even to this day, the heterosexual spread is limited compared to the spread in the gay population.

ROBERT: Only in this country.

LEN: Right.

ROBERT: If you look in the world, what percentage of the world's AIDS cases are heterosexuals?

LEN: Ninety percent.

ROBERT: Over 90 percent. Right. Exactly. . . It's only in this country that you have this strange, unexplained predominance of homosexuals. Now, that's why you have to remember what I just told you. What happens when you put a virus that is transferred like hepatitis B into the homosexuals? When does it appear in heterosexuals?

LEN: Not for a long time.

ROBERT: Exactly. . . [That's why] I think it was pure genius.

Now people say, "Well nobody would think of that." And my answer to that is: "Well, I thought of it. So why couldn't they think of it?"

LEN: I still like my theory better.

[Problems with the 'communist theory' flooded my head. Strecker noted the Russians were way behind us in viral research. How would the Russians have gained access to the viruses in Gallo's or Merck's labs in the first place. Even if Szmuness had been a Russian agent, he would have needed to gain access to the viruses first in order to contaminate the vaccines. Also, had the Russians created AIDS-like viruses shortly after Gallo surely did, then why had Gallo become the world's preeminent retrovirologist and not some Russian? Also the patents are worth millions. Why would the United States and not Russia hold the patents on the AIDS virus antibodies and cell lines?]

ROBERT: Yeah. I mean I don't have the answer. I'm just telling you my theory.

-- Emerging Viruses: AIDS & Ebola: Nature, Accident or Intentional?, by Leonard G. Horowitz, DMD, MA, MPH


A study conducted by two professors of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that from 1970 to 2000, a period in which the incarceration rates for black men skyrocketed to roughly six times the rate for non-Hispanic white men, the H.I.V./AIDS infection rate for black women rose to 19 times the rate for non-Hispanic white women. Using various sources of data to investigate the connection between these developments, they concluded that “higher incarceration rates among black males explain the lion’s share of the black-white disparity in AIDS infection rates among both men and women.”

The exact transmission rates for prisoners are not known, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the majority of prisoners with H.I.V. are exposed to the virus before they are incarcerated. Yet some researchers have concluded that incarceration is a risk factor for H.I.V. infection for the following reasons: There is a higher prevalence of H.I.V. among prison populations; there are higher than average rates of sexual assault and coercive sex among men in prison; inmates have little access to condoms; injectable drugs and tattooing are risk factors that also occur in prisons; and when people are released from prison they typically have inadequate access to health care and treatment because of unemployment and poverty. In addition, high incarceration rates substantially reduce the number of men in black communities and rupture social relationships, which may increase the number of concurrent sexual partners each man has.

These facts suggest that an important contributor to the H.I.V. crisis among black women may be hyper-incarceration. Importantly, these studies help dispel the sorts of stereotypes that have hobbled responses to this H.I.V. crisis. “Secretive” or “closeted” bisexuals have often been blamed for the spread of H.I.V. to heterosexual black women, but there is little evidence to support the belief that there are higher rates of bisexuality among black Americans who are not in prison. Nor does the explanation lie in riskier health habits. Outside of prison, African-Americans have the same (or lower) rates of risky sex or drug use as other Americans. Explanations like these reinforce homophobic and racist “blame the victim” attitudes. They have also impeded disease reduction by wrongly identifying vectors of transmission.

Once a virus spreads in a particular community, members of that community can be at increased risk for infection, even when their rates of participation in activities that can expose them to the virus are the same as in other communities. Mass incarceration may help explain the spread of H.I.V. to and within the African-American community, including among heterosexual African-American women.

There is an urgent need for new policy approaches. We should demand rigorous enforcement of the standards mandated by the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act in order to significantly reduce sexual assaults and coercive sexual practices inside our prisons. We also need to insist that condoms be distributed inside all prisons, and that incarcerated individuals have access to H.I.V. testing and treatment before and after their release. Finally, we must continue to work to eliminate racial profiling in our criminal justice system, and significantly reduce incarceration rates by revising laws and punishment practices that unnecessarily send so many nonviolent lawbreakers to prison.

With a better understanding of the compounded injustices that may contribute to the spike in H.I.V./AIDS rates among African-Americans, let’s hope there will soon be an “outraged outcry” about the unnecessary loss of black lives from both H.I.V./AIDS and mass incarceration.

Laurie Shrage is a fellow in residence at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a professor of philosophy at Florida International University in Miami.
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