The Thai inventors of a controversial AIDS drug, the V1 Immunitor, claim to have developed the world's first cure for the disease prompting thousands of HIV patients to clamor for treatment. The international medical and welfare community remains unconvinced about the drug's effectiveness.
AIDS has brought misery to thousands of families across Thailand. Estimates of how many Thais are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDs, range between 750,000 and 1.5 million, well more than one percent of the population. Despite an aggressive government campaign against the disease, the number of infected people grows.
Most have no access to treatments that have been successfully used in the West to control the disease. In desperation, many Thais have turned to V1 Immunitor, a domestically made drug. Its supporters say the drug cures AIDS.
The Thai government considers the drug just a food supplement, and says it must not be advertised as an AIDS treatment. Critics point out it has not been tested under international standards, and some say it may be a fraud.
Vic Jirathitikal is one of V1's inventors, and he says its critics will be proved wrong. "Even though many of the media and especially the government and even the medical council trying to, you know, discredit us, saying that the efficacy is not clear, is not scientific, whatever," he says. "But still, you see, the patients they are not stupid. They know what is good for them so they come, you see, on their own will. After treatment they know they're getting better."
Indeed, patients besiege clinics that sell V1.
V1 is dispensed at the Ban Ban Pakong clinic 50 kilometers from Bangkok. It costs each patient $20 a month. This 53-year-old man, who is infected with HIV, claimed the drug has done wonders for his health. "V1 has made my life better, healthier, life with hope. I'm only afraid if the doctors here run out of money and stop producing the medicine, I won't know where to turn to," he said.
Grace is a mother from Tanzania. She claims her son tested negative for HIV after taking V-1 pills for several months. She urges doubters to change their minds about the drug. "They must believe because it's not only my son, he get negative, there is more than 10 people - even last week there is two," she said. "They use V1 for three years they get negative, they are here."
Alex Renton, from the aid agency Oxfam, is not convinced. "Everybody who's responsible in Thailand, including the Ministry of Health, has declared that V1 Immunitor, which is essentially a food supplement, which has been marketed very aggressively to Thai HIV positive people, is useless, it's food supplement, it's like vitamins and it's very cruel and also very lucrative."
Mr. Renton thinks Thailand risks becoming a dumping ground for treatments that have not passed strict tests elsewhere. Desperate HIV carriers unable to afford approved treatments could be lured to try fraudulent or unsafe drugs. "There is a lot of money to be made by evil people through this disease," he said.
There is a concern that foreign governments and aid donors are neglecting Thailand's fight against AIDS in of favor the more serious epidemic in Africa.
Promboon Panitchpakdi, with aid agency CARE Thailand, said any easing in the battle now will have serious and expensive consequences. "Based on the trends of new infections, we've seen the younger population of adolescent and youth have higher infections in that age group," he said. "This will mean that there'll be an uprise in infections and in five, 10 years. This will lead to much higher number of AIDS cases and will lead to even a need for a higher budget to support people who are infected."
In two years, the U.N. AIDS conference will be held here in Bangkok. AIDS activists say they hope the need to fight this health crisis in Southeast Asia will not be forgotten until then.