HIV-positive mothers resist pressure to put their children on drug

By Marnie Ko

The Report Newsmagazine 11-08-1999

The women have little in common, except that they are all mothers and are all HIV-positive. One is frantic; her children have already been seized by the state. The second is in hiding with her two infants, ready to flee at a moment's notice. The third mother is haunted by the heart-breaking decision to abort her baby. They are part of a growing Canadian trend: Women intimidated by doctors and public officials into taking anti-AIDS drugs during pregnancy, and into giving these drugs to their newborns, even though there is no law compelling anti-viral therapies, and strong reason to think they do more harm than good.

The first mother, Sophie Brassard, 37, is waging a legal battle to prevent doctors from drugging her HIV-positive children. In August, a court order removed the seven-year-old and his three-year-old sister from Ms. Brassard's Montreal home and placed them with her parents. After the grandparents expressed reservations about drug therapy, the children were put in a foster home on October 22. Five days later, social workers placed both children on anti-HIV drugs at least until the case resumes later this month in Quebec Superior Court.

The second woman, a 29-year-old B.C. mother of two, has been in hiding in Alberta with her sons since September. She ran after social workers demanded she surrender her nine-week-old and three-year-old boys for HIV testing. The soft-spoken European immigrant took anti-HIV drugs only once in 15 years of being HIV-positive, for less than a month. "I've never been so sick," she says. "The drugs made me nauseated all day long and constantly exhausted. I stopped taking the pills and felt better almost immediately. I've been healthy ever since."

The third woman is a 35-year-old from Montreal who was just a few weeks pregnant when her doctor began pressuring her to take anti-viral drugs, and warning that her child would be seized at birth if she refused to give the newborn AIDS cocktails. She spent several weeks agonizing over what seemed an impossible choice: a life on the run, or losing her child. In September, she aborted her baby.

Most people accept conventional theories of AIDS and are surprised that anyone would reject anti-viral drug treatments, but a growing body of scientists believe the medical orthodoxy is wrong. The dissidents include Kary Mullis, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing the polymerase chain reaction used to test for HIV. Another is University of California-Berkeley scientist David Rasnick, president of the Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis. Formed in 1991, it is supported by more than 2,000 scientists and doctors. "AZT and other anti-virals have horrible side effects," says Dr. Rasnick, an expert on the protease inhibitors that are mixed with AZT to make AIDS cocktails. " They are DNA chain terminators; they kill all living things. If these women and children take these drugs religiously as prescribed, they will die."

There's no disputing the drugs' toxicity. Pharmaceutical company Glaxo Wellcome warns against confusing AZT's side-effects, which include dementia, muscle wasting, severe immune deficiency, diarrhea, life- threatening anemia and birth defects, with AIDS itself. In 1994, the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and Human Retrovirology detailed an alarming incidence of therapeutic and spontaneous abortions among mothers on AZT, and a 10% abnormality rate among live births. The grotesque defects included holes in the chest, misplaced ears, misshapen faces, heart defects, extra digits and albinism. Meanwhile, an Italian study published this year in the journal AIDS concluded children born to mothers taking AZT were much likelier to get severely sick and die by age three than those born to HIV-positive mothers not on AZT.

Conventional AIDS researchers resist any suggestion of the inadvisability of anti-viral drug treatments. Dr. Philip Berger, an AIDS specialist at St. Michael's Health Centre in Toronto, says that he doesn't know "anybody" credible who questions AIDS dogma. "Well, maybe some guy who won the Nobel Prize," he allows. As for side-effects, Dr. Berger acknowledges only relatively trivial consequences like tingling in the limbs, redistribution of body fat and rashes, which he says occur only "in a minority situation."

The woman hiding in Alberta is unpersuaded. Explain why people like her remain healthy, the mother challenges. She believes it's because they didn't allow themselves to be used as guinea pigs for anti-HIV drug experimentation. And her family's bags remain packed and waiting at the back door, in case she has to run from the "AIDS police" again. "I'm not giving healthy children, even if they test HIV-positive, drugs that come in a bottle with a skull that has an X through it," she says. "It's crazy."