HIV Children and Orphans are Defacto Test Subjects

Children with HIV are increasingly finding that their status is that of involuntary research subjects, not victims. In December 2004, for example, the journal Nature Medicine reported that since the early 1990s, HIV-positive orphans have been the subjects of “dozens of national clinical trials run by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and other [New York City] area hospitals.” Mammoth pharmaceutical corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturer of zidovudine, have sponsored the testing of antiretroviral and other pharmaceuticals on scores of HIV-infected orphans housed in New York City’s Incarnation Children’s Center (ICC). This institution for the HIV-infected is run by Catholic Charities in Washington Heights…

Some of the candidate AIDS medications are being tested to determine their toxicity. Children as young as four were given cocktails of up to seven potent medications, although physicians are normally reluctant to give young children even approved powerful medications. Little if any benefit accrued to the infants from these risky exposures, because although some were HIV-positive, they were too young to have developed AIDS. One study is of “Stavudine…Alone or in Combination with Didanosine,” a combination that has killed adult women. An experimental vaccine administered to children as young as twelve months utilizes “live chicken pox virus,” even though it can trigger the disease itself. A study titled “HIV Levels in Cerebrospinal Fluid” required that infants undergo a spinal tap, a risky, invasive, and painful procedure. There was even a study on HIV-negative children that used an experimental HIV vaccine. By law, such a nontherapeutic study on healthy children can convey only minimal risk, but the vaccine’s risks are unknown.

Also, some of the experiments did not involve HIV therapeutics: One drug trial tested a herpes medication “for tolerance, safety and pharmacokinetic” information; another investigated reactions to a doubled dose of measles vaccine—in six-month-old infants.

For its part, Columbia University released a statement denying that the drugs’ side effects were serious enough to warrant discontinuing treatment. However, this should have been the parents’ call, not the university’s or the ICC’s. But guardians and parents who adopted HIV-infected children have found the ICC, ACS, and researchers arrayed against them when they have tried to take children off medications they found to be harmful.

In explaining her take on this struggle, Dr. Painter has said, “We’re having an increase in referrals over the last years to deal with medication adherence. There are a fair number of children whose HIV illness may be well controlled but whose families are experiencing difficulty complying with the child’s medication regimen.” By “referrals,” Painter means children who are torn from parents and returned to the various agencies when these parents and guardians balk at dispensing the investigational drugs.

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington