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HEALTH-THAILAND: Row Rages on HIV/AIDS Pills, But Queues
Candida Ng
June 13, 2001
BANGKOK, Jun 13 (IPS) - They are not sure what, if any, good the free pills are bringing them, but thousands of people with HIV/AIDS have been queueing up anyway to get them outside a police station here.

For two weeks now, newspapers have been carrying reports and photographs about people lining up to get the V-1 Immunitor polls -- which some call the "Thai vaccine against AIDS drug", others tout as a "food supplement" and still others, alternative HIV/AIDS treatment.

There is little clarity about the pills' exact nature -- a related product called 'V-1' has been approved by the country's Food and Drug Administration as a food product for export, but not medication.

The government says it is looking into the V-1 Immunitor, which proponents say is alternative HIV/AIDS treatment they want registered as drug. Experts stress there remains no cure for AIDS, through there drug therapies for people with HIV.

But whatever the medical truth is, the queues to get the V-1 Immunitor pills highlight the desperation many of 740,000 people with HIV face in Thailand, not least due to the cost of HIV treatment.

"It shows how hopeless people are and that they are ready to do anything to improve their lives," Dr Mieke Ponnet, a doctor from the medical activist group Medicines Sans Frontieres, said in an interview.

Some experts are calling for restraint in the meantime.

Dr Wiwat Rojanapittayakorn, chief of the United Nations Joint Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) for South-east Asia, says a similar incident had occurred in Kenya in 1990.

At the time, the Kenyan Medical Research Institute claimed to have produced a drug capable of turning people with HIV into HIV- negative individuals. However after thorough research, it was proven to be ineffective.

Thailand's FDA says that many times before, people with HIV/AIDS have had "false hopes based only on rumours".

But a Buddhist monk, Alongkote Prachanart, abbot of the Phra Baht Nampu temple in Lopburi province north of Bangkok, says he has "witnessed with my own eyes the improved condition of around a hundred AIDS patients who were using the V-1 Immunitor pills."

In a country where 46,364 out of nearly 170,000 people with AIDS have died, the promise of a cure offers a glimmer of hope to those with HIV and AIDS.

The V-1 Immunitor pills were first given out two years ago at Ban Bang Pakong clinic in eastern Chachoengsao province, where they had been distributed until late May.

The Salang Bunnag Foundation, chaired by a retired police general of the same name and which financially backs the pill's production, claimed that two people with HIV got cured after they regularly took the pills.

Because of the resultant clamour from people with HIV/AIDS to have access to the pills, the distribution moved early this month to a stadium in the Thai capital.

Then, it moved to a police station, the Police Bureau Region 1 headquarters, where more than 5,000 people descended over the past weekend to queue up for V-1 Immunitor handouts.

Thai media reports have raised many contradictions and questions about the authenticity and quality of the product.

Confusion also reigns as the authorities seem to not yet have decided on the official stand that they should take.

Initially disapproving of the pills in May and discouraging people from taking them, the authorities later backpedalled, allowing their distribution over the past few weeks.

On Jun. 9, Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan said that while the V-1 Immunitor pills would still be given to the public that weekend, they would subsequently be temporarily banned.

Yet the following day, Deputy Prime Minister Pitak Intramityanunt contradicted Sudarat and said the free distribution of the pills would continue.

There also seems to be confusion about the difference between V- 1 and the V-1 Immunitor pills -- registration as a food product or food supplement means they have no therapeutic value.

The goverment says it is willing to speed up the process for the certification of the V-1 Immunitor pills as a drug should it prove to be truly effective in helping people with HIV/AIDS.

Meanwhile, critics question the pill's effectiveness, especially since proponents have advised people with HIV/AIDS to stop taking all other forms of medication when using the V-1 Immunitor.

Dr Montri Sethabutra, who heads the Ban Bang Prakong Clinic, was quoted as saying: "I never told them not to use it with other drugs, but (I did say) if they use those drugs, then please don't use V-1 Immunitor pills, because it conflicts with our theory."

Doubts remain about the ingredients of the V-1 Immunitor pills, with Dr Montri explaining that traces of HIV are included in the pills, along with magnesium and calcium. The pills' developer, Vichai Jirathikal, says that only "a structure similar" to the virus was used.

According to leaflets distributed by the clinic, the V-1 Immunitor pill supposedly "induces immunity to kill the AIDS virus so that people with AIDS return to normal". Other documents from the clinic back claims that the pills could cure the disease.

The makers of the product soon backtracked though, saying that they had never claimed that the pills could cure AIDS.

There are more contradictions that puzzle the public.

Police Gen Salang had claimed that research done by the Thai Red Cross and the Medical Sciences Department had revealed that the viral load of a few people with AIDS had decreased after they took the V-1 Immunitor pills for a period of time.

Again, this contrasted with what the Deputy Health Minister Suraphong Suebwonglee said earlier. He said there had been no significant improvement in the health of nine people with HIV/AIDS who had been observed since last year by the Medical Sciences Department.

The department had coordinated the research with the Salang Bunaag Foundation. Wiwat of UNAIDS, who supported Suraphong's position, was quoted as saying, "Medically speaking, the blood tests of those who have taken the V-1 Immunitor pills do not show that their conditions are improving."

Senator Jon Ungkaporn, a well-known anti-AIDS activist, argued that though recipients of the pills were initially told to consume two a day, the intake was later reduced to one when more people came to get the handouts.

The controversy has even gone to a personal, mudslinging level.

Salang accused the pills' critics of opposing the treatment because of their ties with big multinational firms that produce other, more expensive HIV/AIDS drugs that cost 10,000 to 20,000 baht a month (220 to 440 U.S. dollars) for a cocktail of three anti-retroviral drugs.

These critics, in turn, retaliated with questions about his motives.

Whatever the real motives of both sides, the ones who stand to lose the most are ironically also those who stand to benefit the most, should the V-1 Immunitor pills really prove effective.