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Outcry stops exploitation of women in Cameroon drug trials by Gilead

This article is over 18 years, 11 months old
Trials of AIDS drugs in Cameroon in West Africa have sparked revolt. Mzimasi Makiniki examines the pharmaceutical companies’ motives
Issue 1941

HAVE YOU read The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré? It is about the human suffering caused by a Western pharmaceutical company which uses Africans as guinea pigs for drug testing. In Cameroon, West Africa, that fiction is terribly alive.

Clinical trials of an anti-AIDS drug being tested on sex workers by US pharmaceutical company Gilead have been suspended after public outcry. The clinical trial began in September 2004 with 400 sex workers who were free of infection from the virus.

Half of them were given a daily pill of Tenofovir, the other half a placebo. At the end of the trials, all the women are due to be retested for HIV. For the test to be in any way accurate for comparison purposes, the women must all have unprotected sex. This is appalling, and to make matters worse the company refuses to offer any drug treatment for the women who do become HIV positive.

Retroviral drugs, which help to keep HIV positive people alive, cost $9 a month in Cameroon. Even if Gilead had to pay for 50 people this would be only £450 a month — a trifling cost.

But they refuse because they say this would be an “inducement” to take part in the trial. However, they do give $3 to each woman as a signing-on fee. This is a significant amount in a country where just $2 a head is spent on health care a year.

At least some of the women who signed up for the test did not really know what they were getting into. They thought they were getting a drug to protect them.

The consent forms were in French and English — and many Cameroonians read neither.

Cameroon is popular with scientists as a testing ground for anti-AIDS drugs because every known sub-type of the HIV virus is found in the country.

Similar trials are being conducted on sex workers in Malawi, Ghana and Nigeria with the support of a $6.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gilead has already been forced to scrap trials of Tenofovir in Cambodia after an uproar there.

And at the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, last July the Gilead stand was destroyed by members of the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers and AIDS activists ACT-UP Paris.

On 20 January members of ACT-UP Paris demonstrated in front of the Cameroon embassy in Paris, demanding the trial be stopped. In Africa we would rejoice if there were a pill to stop AIDS infections. Two million people will die in Africa this year from AIDS

A pill to block AIDS would particularly benefit women, who often have difficulty negotiating condom use.

But any trial must be very carefully regulated, beginning from the absolute belief that an African life is of equal value to the life of a British or US woman. There must also be the best possible treatment for any participants who become HIV positive.

Would the directors of Gilead allow their wives or daughters to be part of this trial?

Mzimasi Makiniki is an activist on issues of debt and social justice in Malawi. E-mail [email protected]

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