I have watched a lot of scientifically inaccurate documents in my time, and I have noticed that they all have one thing in common when it comes to trying to convince the viewer of the most ridiculous things. Rather than explaining their theories slowly and in-depth, they instead try and throw as much crap as they can at the screen in the hopes that you won't see the holes in their arguments. These parts of the documentaries are also prime for quote mines, and often lack vital information required for the viewer to make an informed decision. There is no better example of this tactic being used than in the documentary 'House of Numbers' which tries to convince you that anti-retroviral medications are useless, and are actually the real cause of AIDS-like symptoms.
Around the 1 hour 10 minute mark, the movie begins to talk about HIV medication and, in particular, one called azidothymidine (AZT). The drug is a nucleoside analog reverse-transcriptase inhibitor and was the first U.S. government-approved treatment for HIV. It works by incorporating itself into the growing DNA strand synthesised by reverse transcriptase preventing further extension. Although AZT does have a high affinity for reverse transcriptase, it can also inhibit polyerase - leading to some particularly nasty side effects. Even though nowadays these side effects are well documented and understood, the documentary claims that it is in fact AZT that is responsible for AIDS-like symptoms. It even goes as far as to say that the majority of AIDS cases in the U.S. are caused by people reacting badly to the medication. This temporally makes no sense, as how can a people be suffering from a syndrome caused by a drug before the drug was prescribed for the virus causing the syndrome? The documentary tries to explain this by saying that originally people were suffering for AIDS related illnesses as a result of promiscuous gay sex and using the recreational drug Poppers. I guess it’s a massive coincidence that poppers, lots of gay sex, and ATZ all have the exact same side effects. The movie with it’s quick editing hopes that you don't spend too much time thinking about this, and tries to pin the blame solely on HIV drugs (specifically AZT).
The documentary begins to show you clips of people and doctors talking about HIV medications, but the clips are too short and don’t go into detail. For example, there is a series of clips featuring Steve and Cheryl Nagel talking about their daughter. They say that she was diagnosed when she was a child and that she reacted badly to AZT she was prescribed. They later go on to say that they removed her from the drug and that she is now doing well. What we are not told however is whether or not she was misdiagnosed, or if she is now on other antiretroviral medication or her current state of health. It is simply left up to the viewer’s imagination. There is also a montage of clips featuring doctors and medical professionals saying that these drugs do have side effects. The strange thing about these clips is that they are set up like this is a big reveal; That finally doctors are admitting that the drugs can potentially cause harm, and that this document has the scoop. In reality, however, doctors are open about the potential dangers and the long term health effects these drugs will have.
The documentary also appears to be time locked in the late 80s when AZT mono therapy was the only treatment available. At this time, HIV and AZT were not properly understood, and the drug was given in too high a dosage. Patients had to take the medication every 4 hours around the clock, and suffered serious side effects as a result. It was not until 1989 that it was discovered that lower doses were as effective as higher ones and resulted in significantly fewer side effects. Still the life expectancy of someone diagnosed with AIDS at this time was relatively short, as they often contracted a number of opportunistic infections or their HIV infection became resistant to the treatment. AIDS related deaths soared until the mid 90s with the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) – also known as the AIDS cocktail. it consists of a combination of at least three antiretroviral furs to suppresses HIV replication and the progression to AIDS. Since its introduction there has been a sharp reduction in death and suffering. AIDS related deaths in America peaked in 1995, with 41,699 deaths and decreased to 40,629 in 1994. In 1996 the numbers of AIDS related deaths drastically decreased because of the introduction of the AIDS cocktails, to 31,130 and then to 16,685 in 1997. These numbers are in stark contrast to what the documentary is trying to portray. If these drugs were as deadly as the documentary is saying, then we would not see such a sharp decrease in AIDS related deaths.
To give the documentary some credit, it does acknowledge the existence of the AIDS cocktails, but it introduces it in a very underhanded way. It says that they often contain AZT, but refers to it as a chemotherapy drug – even though it was never approved for that purpose. This is the equivalent of me introducing Viagra as medication for hypertension and angina. It’s obviously been set up this way to scare the viewer, because most of us are aware of chemotherapy and it’s nasty side effects. Not once are we told about the drop in mortality after introduction of the cocktail – instead the documentary blurs the lines between past and present therapies to convince the viewer that nothing much has changed over the past 30 years.
This documentary is a very real threat to public health and there is no doubt in my mind that many will have suffered after following it’s misguided advice.