NEW STUDY SHOWS AIDS DRUGS EQUALLY EFFECTIVE AS POVERTY AND MALNUTRITION
By Rodney Richards
Median time from seroconversion to AIDS and death in poor, starving
rural Africans (without access to health care, purified water or
electricity) living in the Masaka District of Uganda (where malaria,
dysentery and measles are endemic) is no different than that observed in
Europeans, North Americans, or Australians who have full access to proper
nutrition, health-care, "life-prolonging" anti-retrovirals, and prophylaxis
against opportunistic infections.
If antiretroviral drugs are responsible for dramatic improvements in
survival among HIV positives taking the treatments, we should expect to see
dramatically reduced survival among HIV positives with no access to the
wonder drugs. Surprisingly, this is not the case. In the March 8, 2002 issue
of the medical journal AIDS, scientist from the Medical Research Council and
the Uganda Virus Research Institute in Uganda (MRC/UVRI) report that
untreated 'HIV infected' Ugandans are surviving "considerably longer than
has been expected."(1)
In fact, this is an understatement. The untreated Ugandans in the above
study are actually surviving just as long as their medicated HIV positive
counterparts in the developed world, according to data published in the
April 1, 2000 issue of The Lancet.(2) This latter study was conducted by
the Collaborative Group on AIDS Incubation and HIV Survival Group
(Collaborative Group) which analyzed data from 13,030 individuals with known
dates of seroconversion from Europe, North America, and Australia to
estimate time from seroconversion to AIDS and death.
Specifically, "median time from seroconversion to death was 9.8 years"(1) in
the Ugandan study, as compared to 10.1 years for aged matched individuals in
the Collaborative Group study; and median time from seroconversion to AIDS
was 9.4 and 9.3 years for the two studies, respectively (see note 1).
Even more miraculously, for individuals infected at ages15-24 in these
studies, 10-year survival was substantially better in antiretroviral-free
Ugandans than it was in their medicated counterparts living in Europe, North
America, and Australia (78% vs 66%, see note 2).
Could it be that these particular rural Ugandans are living in abundance
with good nutrition and the necessary resources to provide for an
environment conducive to fending off the opportunistic infections waiting to
take advantage of their failing immune systems?
The authors give us the answer in a separate report, which was published two
months earlier in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). "Most of the
population" in their study area "lives in poverty; food is often in limited
supply, there is no electricity, and there is poor access to any, let alone
clean, water. Malaria is endemic, and infections other than HIV, especially
bacterial infections, are common."(3)
Interestingly, the BMJ publication doesn't even talk about time to AIDS or
death. Rather it focuses on symptoms in these 'HIV infected' individuals and
paradoxically concludes that "disease progression associated with infection
with HIV-1 seems to be rapid in rural Uganda." Only in the world of HIV/AIDS
can "rapid" disease progression be correlated with "considerably longer"
survival. The apparently schizophrenic conclusions in these two
publications, which are derived from the same patient population, are
discussed further in note 3.
Rather than comment on the contradictory nature of observable facts, the
authors of the Ugandan study attempt to divert attention from the
extraordinary survival rates observed in their subjects by emphasizing these
rates are "comparable to survival times in industrialized countries prior to
the widespread use of antiretroviral therapy." Technically true, but only
because survival times have not changed since the widespread use of
antiretroviral therapy in industrialized countries!
The Collaborative Group study analyzed data for 13,030 individuals who
seroconverted in the pre-HIV-era (before 1983), the prophylaxis-era
(1983-1987), the AZT-era (1987-1990), the monotherapy-era (1990-1993), and
the combination therapy-era (1993-1996). Contrary to all expectations, the
authors inform us that they "found no evidence of a difference in survival
or time to the diagnosis of AIDS for individuals who seroconverted in
No difference in survival time or progression to an AIDS diagnosis for
people who became HIV positive from 1983-1996, despite all the dramatic
improvements in therapies during these years? How can this be?
Prior to AZT treatment, we were told that prophylaxis against PCP
(pneumocystis carinii pneumonia) and MAC (mycobacterium avium complex)
dramatically slows progression to AIDS and death, after the release of AZT
in 1987 we were told AZT dramatically slows progression to AIDS and death
further still. Then in 1993, we were told combination therapy dramatically
slows progression to AIDS and death even further!
In fact, and in stark contrast to all that weıve been told about the drug
therapies, the only group in the Collaborative Group study that actually did
enjoy significantly better survival were those individuals who seroconverted
to HIV positive before 1983, before there were any AIDS treatments or
prophylaxis in use!
So is it fair to say that AIDS prophylaxis, AZT, and combinations of AIDS
drugs did nothing for those receiving treatment? Technically, it is not fair
to say prophylaxis, mono-therapy, and combination therapy did nothing, since
those who seroconverted in years when these drugs were immediately available
actually did significantly worse! The authors offer a nonsensical
rationalization to account for this glaring anomaly: "The apparently better
survival for individuals seroconverting before 1983 may be an artefact,
because these individuals seroconverted before the discovery of HIV-1 as the
causative agent for AIDS."
Rather than focusing on 13,030 examples demonstrating a complete lack of
benefit to any of the anti-retrovirals used alone or in combination up to
1996, the authors instead present this data as a summary of survival "before
the widespread use of HAART," apparently putting forth the implication that
with HAART, survival rates are most certainly improved. Yet the authors
offer no data of their own or even a reference to a single publication
showing us how patients who seroconverted in the HAART-era are actually
doing with regard to survival rates.
Today, nearly two years after the Lancet article on the Collaborative Group
study, the PubMed data base still does not list any published comments on
the results of the Collaborative Group study, and I am still unaware of any
publication that reports data for survival or time to AIDS in persons with
known dates of seroconversion after 1996, in the era of ostensibly better
Even if such data were to become available, and even if the data were
favorable to HAART, the fact remains that the 513,486 AIDS patients reported
to the CDC(4) prior to 1996 needlessly consumed billions of dollars worth of
useless antiretrovirals that seriously compromised the quality, and perhaps
even the quantity, of their lives.
Do these half-million individuals, their families and loved ones deserve to
know that the promised benefits of these drugs aggressively promoted by the
pharmaceutical industry, our public health institutions, and uncritical
journalists, were nothing more than illusions? That the only thing real that
resulted from their dedicated compliance to consuming these chemicals were
compromised quality of life and debilitating side-effects? Or do we continue
to divert attention from their senseless pain and suffering by shining the
light of hope on the new unproven toxic drugs of the HAART-era?
While the results of the Collaborative Group study tell us why untreated HIV
positive Ugandans are surviving just as long as their treated counterparts
in the developed world (the drugs are demonstrably worthless, at best), they
donıt reveal why HIV positive Americans and Europeans who have full access
to food, water and health care do not fare better than their impoverished
Ugandan counterparts. Is there anything that can explain the remaining part
of this paradox?
The Ugandans enrolled in the above studies did have access to regular
check-ups, diagnostic testing, and free medication for routine health-care,
which might have contributed to survival. However, when the researchers
studied matched HIV positives outside of the study cohort who did not have
access to these amenities, survival times were no different. The authors
characterize this fact as a "disappointing" finding for which "we do not
have a good explanation."(1) It would seem from this that access to
health-care and medicine is of little use to malnourished people with no
access to food or clean water.
Could it be then that the HIV positive Ugandans in these studies are not
surviving surprisingly long, but rather, that the HIV positive subjects in
developed countries on antiretrovirals are actually dying surprisingly fast?
Perhaps the anti-retrovirals are not worthless but are actually as harmful
as poverty and malnutrition.
To check this hypothesis, I propose a study that would give some of the
Ugandans in the above studies access to food and clean water and then assess
their survival rates. If such a study were under taken, I predict we would
see the median survival among untreated HIV positive Ugandans significantly
surpass that of their medicated counterparts in the developed world. Can
such a study be conducted? Itıs not unethical to give Africans food, is it?
These observations are consistent with the hypothesis that
anti-retrovirals are killing people as effectively as poverty and
Dr. Rodney Richards, PhD, worked for Amgen Laboratories on the ELIZA HIV antibody test.
1. Progression to AIDS and death in the Collaborative Group study was
significantly correlated with age at seroconversion. Therefore, the authors
report disease progression according to age groups. Median time to AIDS
ranged from 11.0 to 5.0 years for those aged 15-24 to 65+, respectively; and
median time and death ranged from 12.5 to 4.0 years for those aged 15-24 to
65+, respectively. Based on the age distribution of subjects in the Ugandan
study (1), age matched median time to AIDS and death is calculated to be 9.3
and 10.1 years, respectively, in the Collaborative Group study.
2. This data is approximated from the graphs in the respective publications..
See Fig. 2 in the Ugandan study, and Fig, 1 in the Collaborative Group
3. The Ugandan studies use the WHO Staging system to define disease
progression. (WHO. Wkly Epidemiol Rec 1990; 65:221-8.) Unlike the Bangui
definition of AIDS (WHO. Wkly Epid Rec 1986; 61:72-73.), which is based on
clinical symptoms without an antibody test, the WHO staging system requires
a positive anti-HIV test. It then attempts to gage disease progression
according to four Stages. Stage 1: asymptomatic; Stage 2: mild symptoms,
including weight loss of as little as 5%; Stage 3: weight loss greater than
10%, or treatable opportunistic infections; and Stage 4, which is synonymous
with AIDS. Stage 4 includes many, but not all of the illnesses used by the
CDC to define AIDS.
The staging system is progressive, hence when a person progresses to a
higher stage, they cannot go back even if the condition is resolved. So when
the authors report, "only 17% of participants remained symptom-free five
years after seroconversion," this is not striking. In fact, the vast
majority of participants may actually be symptom-free as we speak. A single
bout of sinusitis, dermatitis, or bacterial infection, or even a 5% weight
loss (in a month), over this 5 year period leaves the subject classified as
symptomatic, regardless if they recover or not.
The fact that disease progression to Stages 2 and 3 is remarkably rapid,
while disease progression to Stage 4 (AIDS), or death, is remarkable slow,
leaves one wondering, "of what value is this Staging system?"
1. Morgan D et al. HIV-1 infection in rural Africa: Is there a difference in
median time to AIDS and survival compared with that in industrialized
countries? AIDS. 2002; 16:597-603.
2. Collaborative Group on AIDS incubation and HIV Survival including the
CASCADE EU Concerted Action. Time from HIV-1 seroconversion to AIDS and
death before widespread use of highly-active antiretroviral therapy:
collaborative re-analysis. Lancet 2000; 355:1131-37.
3. Morgan D et al. Progression to symptomatic disease in people infected
with HIV-1 in rural Uganda: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2002 Jan 26;
4. CDC. Year end HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report 1995; Vol 7:No. 2.