By Ranjit Dev Raj

Inter Press Service 3 Feb. 2000

New Delhi -- Far from inhibiting the Acquired Immuno- Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the World health Organisation (WHO)- approved drug AZT actually causes it, visiting independent researchers warned Indian health authorities here. Guided by WHO prescriptions, the World Bank-funded National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) began administering AZT to HIV- positive pregnant women in India last year after announcing that it would reduce mother-to-child transmission.

NACO Director J.V. Prasada Rao said the programme was based on WHO recommendations released at its 12th World Conference at Geneva in 1998 where it was claimed that transmission could be reduced to one percent when pregnant women were put on AZT and delivered through caesarian section.

"The basic idea is to use AZT to reduce the viral load in pregnant women," Rao said.

But, according to Dr. Etienne de Harven, a Paris-based expert in electron microscopy, it is impossible to determine viral load using ordinary laboratory methods such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

"The fact is that direct isolation and purification of the so-called HIV virus from the blood plasma of HIV positive or even from AIDS patients has never been reported, using any method," de Harven said.

But there was even worse news for the proponents of AZT in India from Dr Claus Kohnlein an independent researcher from Germany. "There is no scientific evidence to show that the HIV retrovirus causes AIDS."

On the other hand, there is hard evidence that AZT (short for azidothymidine and also known as zidovudine), like several other immuno-suppressive drugs, definitely causes AIDS, Dr Kohnlein said.

Kohnlein described AZT as a "highly toxic and worthless drug approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration on the basis of fraudulent research and which continues to be promoted in spite of being responsible for tens of thousands of deaths."

Developed for cancer chemotherapy in the sixties, AZT was designed to kill growing cells by terminating DNA synthesis -- a job it does efficiently without distinguishing between human or retroviral cells.

Kohnlein said he personally never prescribes AZT for HIV positive patients and most of them were none the worse for it. And so were patients he knew who had opted for homeopathic treatment.

In his experience, most HIV-positive patients who were placed on AZT rapidly suffered immune-deficiency and developed symptoms which were commonly ascribed to AIDS. And most of the cases he knew of resulted in death.

Since AZT can directly cause several of the 30 AIDS-indicator diseases which form the basis for AIDS diagnosis in the U.S it logically follows that AZT can cause AIDS when administered to an asymptomatic HIV-positive individual, Dr Kohnlein said.

Activists in India have already been questioning the promotion of AZT in this country by NACO and accused it of promoting the interests of its manufacturer Glaxo-Wellcome.

"If the drug is being used merely to reduce viral load, many proven ayurvedic drugs which boost the immune system are readily and cheaply available in this country," said Dr Mira Shiva of the Voluntary Health Association of India (NHAI).

Ranjana Kumari, convenor of the Women's Forum suspected the introduction of AZT as "another attempt to use women in the Third World as guinea pigs instead of concentrating on discovering the real cause of AIDS."

Suspicion among activists were not allayed by the fact that major drug companies, which produce drug-combinations using AZT such as Burroughs Wellcome, have announced large-scale discounts to promote their use in developing countries.

More than 90 percent of the world's 30 million HIV infected people live in developing countries in the sub-Saharan region and in Asia and, according to an UNAIDS document, will greatly benefit from the price reductions.

But even at the reduced prices therapy with AZT combinations work out to 600 dollars per month limiting its use to the well- to-do or those selected for treatment by government hospitals.

In India, money for the expensive antiretroviral combination drugs is expected to come from NACO which began a second-phase of its programme in December with 191 million dollars of World Bank funds.

According to a WHO document, although surveillance is patchy, it is estimated that more than 4 million people in India are living with HIV making India the country with the largest number of HIV-infected people in the world.

Total costs for NACO's phase two were estimated at 229 million dollars with the government contributing 38 million dollars and the rest coming from bilateral agencies such as the United States Agency of International Development (USAID) and the British Department for International Development (DfID).

Activists such as Purushottaman Mulloli of the Joint Action Council, Kannur (JACK) have been campaigning against the "hijacking of the whole health agenda through AIDS hysteria created in the country by NACO."

"The hysteria and scare tactics employed in the name of creating awareness has created social havoc with suspected HIV infected people and so-called high risk groups getting lynched and socially ostracised," he said.

Complaints from JACK and women's groups of exaggerated figures of HIV infections have resulted in the powerful Prime Minister's Office intervening, last month, to order a review of NACO's activities especially the phase one which cost 83 million dollars.

Mulloli said in spite of the absence of epidemiological data, or scientific research India's health bureaucracy has followed the dictates of donor agencies in pursuit of a vertical anti-AIDS programme and without accountability.

"No thought was given to the possibility that AIDS in India could be the result of severe malnutrition and stress from repeated infections of malaria, ascariasis, or gastric and respiratory diseases -- all of which can be tackled by improving living conditions."