The Citizen 5 Nov. 1999

President Thabo Mbeki is not misinformed about AZT. Last week, when he said there might be legal implications in giving the drug to Aids patients, manufacturers Glaxo Wellcome said flatly that there were no cases.

Their verdict has been repeated as gospel by interested parties, including newspapers. In fact there have been several cases and there will be more.

Leading the charge is Deane Collie of the International Coalition for Medical Justice (ICMJ) in Virginia, US. I spoke to her yesterday. The ICMJ is preparing more than one class action in more than one jurisdiction specifically concerning the dangers of AZT. Much of this arises out of neurological damage to African American children who were used on AZT trials. Apparently some of them cannot talk and others cannot walk. These maladies are being attributed to AZT.

Ms Collie says the manufacturers have been involved in many law suits but that they have a history of settling out of court, on terms which silence the complainants. She says the ICMJ will not settle out of court.

Among the many other cases past and pending.:

The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Canada, reported last week on a mother who had taken her children into hiding . She does not want them to be given AZT, among other drugs, because she believes it is toxic. She was given an ultimatum: put the kids on AZT or weíll take them away. According to the Globe and Mail, there are currently nine in legal cases under way where parents are fighting to make their own decisions about HIV-related therapies.

In September last year Valerie Emerson of Maine, US, won the right, in court, to refuse to let her son be given an AZT "cocktail". She rejected conventional Aids therapy after the gruesome death of her daughter who had been on AZT

In 1994 Sue Threakall, from Birmingham, UK, served a writ on Wellcome after the death of her husband, which she blamed on AZT. Her solicitors withdrew the action because the hospital where Mr Threakall was treated did not take proper readings "and prescribed above recommended levels, which acts exculpate Welcome".

When it emerged that President Mbeki had obtained some of his information from the Internet, this was greeted with derision in certain newspapers. I do not know which sites Mbeki has been visiting but here are some interesting ones, and

Of course there are a lot of cranks cruising the information highway but there are also some respectable names challenging conventional ideas about AZT and Aids. University of California molecular biologist Peter Duesberg, the first person to map the gene structure of retroviruses, is convinced that AZT causes "poisoning" by destroying bone marrow and blood cell systems. Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1993 for inventing the polymerase chain reaction used to test for HIV, is also a doubter. So, too, is Dr Walter Gilbert, Professor in molecular biology, who won1980 Nobel prize for chemistry.

This is not to suggest that all these people share exactly the same views about AZT. Nor do the hundreds of other scientists engaged in the debate world-wide.

The important point is that there is a debate, and our President has taken cognisance. Praised for his intellect when he invokes literary allusions or espouses visions of a renaissance, he should not to be so lightly dismissed when he plugs into other intellectual pursuits.

Misinformed? Donít make that judgment until youíve tried to understand the exchange of ideas. Check it out.