HEAL London

Health Education and AIDS Liaison - a more intelligent approach

The News

Nadja Benaissa - Criminal or Victim?

Nadja Benaissa convicted of passing on HIVGerman popstar Nadja Benaissa has been found guilty of recklessly infecting her boyfriend with HIV by having unprotected sex with him after she’d been diagnosed HIV positive. But there are a number of clues that raise serious questions about whether she could technically have committed the crime at all.

Let’s make one distinction first though: There is a moral issue in knowingly having unprotected sex with someone when you believe they could catch a deadly infection from you that you believe you’ve already got. That’s different from having no reason to believe you’ve got anything infectious and the pair of you taking a risk. But the issue being discussed here is not whether she was morally in the right or not, but whether or not it was even possible for her to have committed the crime in the first place, from a legal perspective.

To have committed the specific crime from a technical perspective her ex-boyfriend’s HIV diganosis would have to be accurate, and her diagnosis would have to be accurate, and he would have had to get ‘her’ HIV. All of these points are open for debate. For a start there are no HIV tests or combination of tests that have ever been validated against the presence or absence of HIV in actual people by a chain of robust proof. Probably the key reason for that is because no-one can find HIV in actual people, astonishing though it may be for people to hear that point raised, but it does explain why all commercial HIV tests have robust disclaimers saying they can’t be used to confirm a diagnosis of HIV infection.

For the same reason there is actually no robust proof that HIV has ever been sexually transmitted either. Phylogenetic tests are often used to suggest whether what is alleged to be HIV in one person is closely related to what is alleged to be HIV in another person. They allegedly examine the genetic information in what is purported to be the virus, but there are reasons why they are not as reliable as is suggested.

The most fundamental of these is that the processes used to compare them are not scientifically robust. It appears that in all claims of HIV isolation and / or transmission there is the absence of proper control samples and blinded analysis. This is especially important because it is known that when cells are cultured in the torturous chemical environment ordinary cells known to have no HIV will express particles that can be mistaken for HIV. Therefore it is essential to use controls and blinded experiments to ensure that what is thought to be HIV is not simply a laboratory artefact from the torturous environment the cells are placed in. It is already known that cells can rearrange their DNA in response to various challenges. Therefore any claimed similarity in HIV strains is most likely to be due entirely to subtle variations in the environment in which the cells were tortured, resulting in strong similarities in the genetic codes of the particles expressed by the distressed cells.

There is also the small matter of a lack of evidence from controlled studies indicating that sexual transmission of this alleged virus is credible. For example, the Padian study, now claimed to show that ‘safe sex’ interventions work in reducing the rate of transmission, did not show that at all. What it actually showed is that in 282 years of sex between sero-discordant couples, with at least 25% not using condoms reliably throughout, there was absolutely not a single partner originally diagnosed HIV negative who became diagnosed HIV positive during the study. And there are many more epidemiological challenges to the notion that any significant number of HIV diagnoses are the result of sexual transmission.

But let’s look at her original diagnosis: For a start there are a whole bunch of factors known to be capable of causing false positive HIV diagnoses, ranging from intravenous drug use, vaccinations, pregnancy, being black – oh, wait a minute… I notice from her picture she looks as though she is mixed race with some black ancestry. I quick check indicates she has some Moroccan ancestry. So that will slightly bump up her likely chances of being diagnosed HIV positive for a start, just from being likely to have a greater antibody response to antigens, as black women typically have on average around 40% or more higher levels of antibodies than white women, a naturally-occurring biological response.

I see also that she was a crack addict from only 14 years old. Interestingly, drug use is also correlated with being diagnosed HIV positive, but also that those that kick the habit may subsequently be diagnosed HIV negative, suggesting strongly it is simply the body’s temporary response to foreign antigens in the bloodstream that is tipping the relevant antibody levels over the arbitrary HIV positive threshold.

And Lo-and-behold, she was diagnosed HIV positive during routine ante-natal screening when she was sixteen, when published research and even some HIV test manufacturers admit that pregnancy can trigger false positives. An internal document within the NHS admits that pregnancy can cause a low positive predictive value on HIV tests. That’s another way of saying that a high proportion of HIV diagnoses of pregnant women may simply be false positives due to the pregnancy itself. But that hasn’t stopped them making HIV testing during pregnancy routine.

And what of the boyfriend? We know little about him as his anonymity is protected by the court, but there is no evidence that HIV tests on men have any validity either.

If these facts are true, then why didn’t she protest her innocence at having infected him or challenge her own diagnosis? Quite possibly she hadn’t been informed about the serious and fundamental flaws in HIV testing before she agreed to be tested. Yet people have tried to contact her via her lawyer to let her know there are serious challenges to the notion of the possibility of infecting people with HIV via sexual transmission.

Since The Organisation for Medical and Scientific Justice has started to get involved in HIV transmission trials they have tended to collapse, the charges be withdrawn, or else a plea-bargain is struck resulting in a token sentence. Sadly, colleagues confirm that all attempts to reach Nadja have failed.

See also: Nadja's Choice, an anatomy of a show trial.