Welcome To The Machine

By Celia Farber

Ironminds Dec. 1999

South African President Thabo Mbeki has started an uproar by refusing to give pregnant women AZT. With the International AIDS Conference in Durban looming, the stage is set for a major showdown.

Lucky for the AIDS establishment that South Africa is so very far away; unlucky for them that the International AIDS Conference will be held there, in Durban, in a matter of months. Recent developments have turned the nation into a potential powder keg of dissent against the HIV-AIDS paradigm, with none other than the president of the country leading the resistance.

On October 28, South African President Thabo Mbeki appeared on national television to explain why the government is not giving AZT to pregnant women, a practice common in many African countries, which have become a secondary market for the fallen drug. Credible scientists, Mbeki said, have raised monumental concerns about the toxicity of AZT, legal actions have been brought against the drug in several countries, and he is determined to “get to the real truth.”

“Somebody with the savvy, courage, intelligence and determination of Mbeki is not likely to be taken in by the self-interested rhetoric of AZT’s defenders,” said Dr. Harvey Bialy, an editor at Nature Biotechnology and a longstanding critic of the AIDS establishment’s paradigm, particularly its manifestation in Africa. “To have him as an ally in this battle for the acknowledgement of another simple truth is a welcome way to end the century.”

Mbeki has instructed Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to launch a thorough investigation into the concerns about AZT, “so that to the extent that it is possible, we ourselves, including our country’s medical authorities, are certain of where the truth lies.”

Last year, former Health Minister Nkosazana Zuma, who since has been promoted to foreign affairs, made the controversial decision not to make AZT available at state expense to HIV-positive pregnant women in South Africa. Zuma said she felt that money would be better spent on public education. She was thunderously condemned for being heartless.

Now Mbeki is taking the actual bull by the horns and saying, to the astonishment of everyone: Is this drug safe, and is it effective?

It is neither. AZT is a known carcinogen, mutagen and teratogen, and it is listed in category C in the FDA’s pregnancy hierarchy, meaning that it is a drug “... in which safety in human pregnancies has not been determined, animal studies are either positive for fetal risk or have not been conducted, and the drug should not be used unless the potential benefit outweighs the potential risk to the fetus.” It is a crude chemotherapy drug that was originally shelved in the 1960s because it was deemed too toxic for human use.

In 1993, the Concorde Study, which was the first major study on AZT that was not underwritten by the drug’s manufacturer, found that patients who received AZT had a 25 percent higher death rate than those who received a placebo. AZT’s status as a “miracle drug” that dramatically reduces the rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV was resurrected in 1994 after the ACTG 076 study, which was funded by AZT manufacturer Glaxo Wellcome.

While that study did conclude that AZT could lower transmission from 25.5 percent to 8.3 percent, subsequent studies have not repeated the glowing results. In fact, a study in Malawi, Africa, found that transmission was closely correlated with levels of vitamin A in mothers and that mothers with the highest levels of vitamin A had a transmission rate of just 7.2 percent.

In addition, a 1995 study that focused on birth defects in babies born to mothers in India who had taken AZT during pregnancy, found that out of 104 AZT-exposed fetuses, there were eight spontaneous abortions, eight therapeutic abortions and eight serious birth defects, including extra digits on hands and feet. Extra digits, as well as low-set ears, misshapen heads and severe heart defects, have also been reported in other AZT-exposed babies.

Despite all this, the most sacred tenet of post-Thalidomide prenatal care — that pregnant women be given no chemicals — was shattered in the new zeal to get all HIV-positive pregnant women around the globe on AZT.

Enter Mbeki.

Mbeki’s opposition represents the first significant break against the dominant thinking that surrounds AIDS, Africa and Western drugs, which holds as gospel the maudlin notion that people are dying in Africa because they have been cruelly denied access to AIDS drugs like AZT.

In the hell that immediately broke loose in the South African media following Mbeki’s act of heresy, Tshabalala-Msimang told an angry mob of reporters that a body of scientific research and information indicates that AZT is a “dangerous drug” and one that has not been designed for the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

“We want to make sure that 15 years down the road, there are no regrets,” she said.

Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang were promptly attacked, ridiculed and condemned by the nation’s media and AIDS activists, as the inevitable flotsam of tangential issues were dragged in to spread guilt and paralyze vital discourse.

Mbeki was accused of being callous toward the country’s rape victims, which newspaper reports cited as “a couple of million a year,” who depend on AZT as a prophylactic to deter HIV infection. But even Glaxo admits that the drug was never approved to be given as a morning-after AIDS-combating pill for rape victims.

Mbeki fanned the flames of feminist rage when he rightly challenged a rape statistic that seemingly had no real source. In 1997, the South African Police Service put out the figure that only one in 36 rapes are ever reported in South Africa. “But,” Mbeki said in his speech, “you will be surprised, as I was, to learn that the police service could not explain how this figure had been arrived at.” (Many figures these days, especially figures out of Africa, are not “arrived at” through any actual analysis — they are not really figures at all; they are a kind of oracular creation, a measure not of a given reality but of a political or ideological projection, or even a wish. All they tell you is how you are supposed to feel.)

AIDS rhetoric never gets so smoky as when the talk revolves around Africa — a continent most AIDS reporters and scientists have never set foot on. All you are meant to understand is that HIV in Africa is spreading “rampantly,” that entire populations are being “decimated,” and that this is somehow meant to compensate for the failure of the “heterosexual epidemic” to decimate populations in the West.

As my two-part “Out of Africa” series in Spin reported in 1992, the problem with AIDS in Africa is that it shares the precise clinical definition as common infectious diseases. This makes it impossible to weed out “AIDS” from other illnesses.

There is a powerful incentive to “call everything AIDS,” as several Africans admitted they do, because AIDS attracts World Health Organization funding, whereas old diseases like tuberculosis and malaria do not.

As Philippe Krynen, a French relief worker who assisted AIDS orphans in Tanzania, told me, “If people die of malaria, it is called AIDS. If they die of herpes, it is called AIDS. I’ve even seen people die in accidents, and it’s been attributed to AIDS. The AIDS figures out of Africa are pure lies.”

When I traveled through Africa, I detected a resentment brewing among intellectuals and scientists against this wholesale importing of a Western disease complete with an ideological code and a program for behavioral control. Yet Africa continues to be used as a kind of canvas for anything and everything the AIDS establishment and media wish to hurl at it.

Journalists howled and bayed at Mbeki’s decision — which one paper called “nauseating” — to investigate AZT. They called his actions “irresponsible” and condemned the Medicine’s Control Council for being involved in the probe. And what of the Cape Town children, they asked, who were given AZT after they played with illegally dumped medical waste? Was Mbeki going to deny them their right to the drug?

“The controversy,” one Johannesburg newspaper bemoaned, “threatens to set back efforts to fight the disease.” Mbeki, the newspaper reported, “... said that it would be ‘irresponsible’ not to heed the ‘dire warnings,’ of researchers about the safety of AZT. ...”

“Reputable scientists have issued no such warnings, and it was unclear what (Mbeki) was referring to,” the story purported. The paper then made the astonishing claim that 1,500 South Africans are infected with HIV each day and that “the government has come under increasing pressure to provide drugs like AZT to infected mothers and rape victims. The government has said before that it cannot afford to do so, but this is the first time in the public debate that an official has so forcefully said a health danger is the reason.”

Mbeki educated himself about AIDS and the concerns about AZT at least in part via the Internet, beginning with an extensive critique from Anthony Brink, a writer and attorney in South Africa. Mbeki visited the various dissident Web sites for information. Mbeki’s critics were quick to ridicule him for doing this, even going so far as to suggest that he was losing control of his faculties. But Mbeki was not deterred.

Glaxo asked for an immediate meeting with Mbeki. A meeting was eventually arranged between Glaxo and Tshabalala-Msimang, at which the drug company requested information about what form the investigation would take. Glaxo wanted to be involved in the investigation, but was told that no, this wouldn’t be a good idea. Glaxo must be surprised because it has funded virtually every major AZT study ever to come out, hence the seemingly indestructible myth that AZT is a life-extending and “good” drug.

Mbeki is a rare and courageous leader to stand up to Glaxo, the rest of the AIDS industry, the media, activists and feminists. Interesting that they should all be so apoplectic about a simple investigation. If they are right about AZT, then they surely have nothing to worry about. The next few months should prove to be very interesting as the AIDS establishment and dissidents prepare for the inevitable showdown in Durban.

The next few months could also be a vindication of sorts for Brink, who until recently had been South Africa’s one-man Rethinking AIDS movement, writing and battling with the nation’s journalists and AIDS workers to draw attention to the reality behind the AZT mythology, as well as to the deeper problems with the HIV-AIDS paradigm.

“I have pretty much been the only voice of dissent in South Africa,” he said.

Well, now he is in excellent company.

Celia Farber is an Ironminds senior contributing writer and a staff writer for Gear.