Bill Maher, Charlie Sheen, and Modern Day Snake Oil

Bill Maher, Charlie Sheen, and Modern Day Snake Oil

Bill Maher has done the impossible: he’s fallen farther in my esteem. There was a time (high school) when I could tolerate — and even enjoy — Real Time with Bill Maher. I’m not sure if he became more chauvinistic or I became a more critical viewer, but that time has long since passed; his strident sexism, Islamophobia, anti-vaccination rhetoric, and overall pomposity has completely eroded any respect I once accorded him. Today, I think of Maher primarily as a walking, talking, cautionary tale for middle-class, hetero, white, male liberals: don’t be that guy. That guy’s such a jerk.

Now Bill Maher is much more than a jerk: he’s an honest-to-God public health risk.

Bill Maher has a long history of peddling anti-medical rhetoric. Despite his claim that he is not, in fact, an anti-vaxxer (you can judge his rhetoric for yourself), he routinely offers anti-vaccination pundits space on his show, and last year told his audience “I would never get a swine flu vaccine or any vaccine” — because those vaccines are just crazy. Maher’s never been one to offer good medical advice to his audience, but his latest stunt is without a doubt his most egregious.

Last week, the comedian gave Samir Chachoua — an Australian doctor who is not licensed to practice medicine in the United States — a platform to talk — for ten solid minutes — about his “cure” for HIV/AIDS. Chachoua peddles snake oil cures for terminal illnesses. He’s gained fame in the past couple weeks because actor Charlie Sheen (who made his HIV diagnosis public this past November) visited him in Mexico seeking an alternative to antiretroviral drugs, which, though life-savingly effective, come with a bevy of unpleasant side effects. Not only did Chachoua provide Sheen with a “miracle drug” — a virus he claims lives in the milk of arthritic goats — he then injected himself with Sheen’s blood to demonstrate confidence in his product.

Dr. Samir Chachoua. (HBO)
Dr. Samir Chachoua. (HBO)

To be clear: Charlie Sheen did not become HIV negative, despite Chachoua’s claims. Moreover, the star’s viral load returned to detectable levels while undergoing Chachoua’s treatment: his so-called cure actually made Sheen sicker. (The actor has since resumed antiretroviral therapy, having been duly chastised by both his physician and television personality Dr. Oz.) Chachoua hasn’t cured AIDS, or found an effective treatment. He has found a great way to take money from, and potentially kill, desperate people.

Another important point of clarification: in the long history of medical self-experimentation, Chachoua’s HIV-infected-blood stunt doesn’t rank as particularly dangerous. Sheen had been taking antiretroviral drugs when he made his ill-advised trip to Mexico. His viral load was undetectable. When the news about Sheen’s visit to Chachoua first became public on the Dr. Oz Show, the star had only been off of his meds for a week or so. ART interruption has to happen from time to time for various and sundry reasons: surgery, certain illnesses, interrupted access to drugs, etc. While being off the drugs can and often does cause viral rebound and clinical progression, it is not unheard of to undergo a planned short-term therapy interruption for up to two weeks… under medical supervision.

The likelihood, then, that Sheen’s viral load would be high enough to prompt a seroconversion (HIV infection) at the time Chachoua injected himself was very low. Chachoua was banking on the continued efficacy of Sheen’s ARVs when he injected himself, not his pathogen-laden arthritic goat milk. In other words, Chachoua’s actions, however unethical, irresponsible, and inappropriate, weren’t entirely stupid.

While his chosen mark may garner him a unique brand of infamy, Samir Chachoua is not the first quack to prey on the HIV-positive (or Poz) community. There’s a long and depressing history of doctors peddling fake cures for AIDS that we — and culture brokers like Maher — forget at our peril.

Chachoua isn’t even the first quack to inject himself with an HIV-positive patient’s blood. In the year 2000, a Nigerian surgeon named Jeremiah Abalaka conned hundreds of Africans with a vaccine of his own. The vaccine — which hadn’t been well-researched enough to be written up in any medical journals — cost his impoverished patients hundreds of dollars. One patient told the BBC “I’ve sold all my properties, everything I have, I’ve even sold my house, to come here and pay for the course, and to save my life.” Sixteen years (and a great many lawsuits) later, Abalaka has backed off the claim that he found a cure, but maintains that his vaccine is an efficacious treatment for HIV. He resumed production in 2015, when a Federal court ruled a ban on his treatment illegal. The Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWHAN) responded to the decision with an informational campaign designed to remind Nigerians that the ban being overturned had nothing to do with the efficacy of Abalaka’s treatment, which remains unsubstantiated to this day.

To the list of murderous AIDS shysters, add Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, the famous inventor of the Heimlich maneuver. Heimlich started advocating the use of “malarial therapy” to treat people with AIDS in the early 1990s. Despite being repudiated by the CDC as early as 1993 — which cited the then mounting evidence that malaria worsens HIV — Heimlich raised enough money to attempt malarial therapy on human subjects in China. He got a depressing amount of that money from Hollywood. Needless to say, none of the people Heimlich deliberately infected with malaria were cured of HIV/AIDS.

New York Times reporting on UCLA investigation of Heimlich's "malarial therapy" tests in China.
New York Times reporting on UCLA investigation of Heimlich’s “malarial therapy” tests in China.

Chachoua, Abalaka, and Heimlich: these are just examples of licensed medical professionals using their credentials to dupe the Poz public. Add to their number famous AIDS deniers like Peter Duesberg; the homeopaths who’ve claimed that music therapy cures AIDS; the “alternative medicine” rags advocating the use of massive quantities of vitamin C; the producers of electric “AIDS zappers” and “oxygen cures”; and, most appallingly, the purveyors of the virgin cleansing myth, which perpetuates the rape of female children and babies in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Thailand, and you’ve got yourself a veritable mountain of life-threatening misinformation. Every time a member of this not-so-illustrious group is given a public platform, more people are hurt.

By putting Samir Chachoua on national television, and deliberately sidestepping the truth about Charlie Sheen’s condition throughout their interview, Bill Maher raised the profile of a conman. I’m convinced he was aware of the long history of fake AIDS cures when he invited Chachoua onto Real Time. Moreover, I’m convinced Maher’s interview deliberately shaded the truth in an attempt to discredit western medicine, against which the comedian has been grinding his ill-informed axe for years. People may well die as a result of his willful ignorance.

And so I find myself in a very uncomfortable position: I’m placing faith in Charlie Sheen. Embarrassing as it doubtless is for the actor to admit that he was duped by a dude peddling arthritic goat milk, he needs to do it again, and this time, he needs to do it on a prominent news outlet… not The Dr. Oz Show. If Charlie Sheen releases a public statement condemning Maher and decrying the quackery that cost him his undetectable viral load, maybe, just maybe, Samir Chachoua will lose the foothold he’s just gained in the United States. Maybe then I can go back to thinking of Bill Maher as just a jerk, instead of a criminal.

Correction: This post originally stated that Dr. Henry J. Heimlich is deceased. Heimlich is still alive as of February 2016 and we have updated the post accordingly.

Andrea Milne is a SAGES Teaching Fellow and Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University. Her current research focuses on the nurses who developed the first AIDS ward in the United States. She received her PhD from the University of California, Irvine in 2017.

1 thought on “Bill Maher, Charlie Sheen, and Modern Day Snake Oil

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      Andrea, It is completely erroneous to assert that injecting someone else’s HIV positive blood is relatively low risk if they are on anti-retrovirals. Not to mention ABO incompatible transfusions are invariably fatal. Do you really believe the good “quack” injected Sheen’s blood? If you believe that, then I have an AIDS cure to sell you.

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