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Cameroon Activists Want Protection of Drug Test Victims

Cameroonian activists from a group called REDS, an acronym for defending ethics in AIDS, say they are finally being taken seriously now that the government decided to suspend the clinical trial of the drug Tenofovir earlier this month. Tenofovir is being tested as a possible prophylactic in preventing HIV infection.

Calice Talom, the head of the Cameroonian human-rights group, says: "When we were telling people that there were problems in these clinical trials, some have the impression that we are joking. And when the public media announced that the minister in charge of public health had decided to suspend it, we say, this is one step."

Other steps Mr. Talom is seeking include getting free advanced care for women who may have become infected with HIV during the trial. Four hundred are taking part, most of them young prostitutes.

If the trial resumes, Mr. Talom wants women to get better counseling on the use of condoms, and more awareness on the risks involved. He says many of the women thought they were risk-free because they were using Tenofovir, even though half were being given a placebo.

Mr. Talom says the counseling and manuals given to the women were in English, even though most cannot understand English and cannot read at all. He says women used in the trial would have been treated very differently if the tests had been carried out in a more developed country.

Under the agreement set up by Cameroon's government and U.S-based Family Health International, the trial's coordinator, women who get infected are directed to Cameroon's health system for treatment. Tenofovir is produced and sold by the U.S. drug company Gilead under the name Viread.

But the local organizer of the trial, Anderson Doh, denies ethical problems caused the government's suspension.

"Most of what they cited as recommendations concern administrative issues," he said. "Some of them I do not quite agree with, but that is not the point here. We are going to get them sorted out. And I want to insist on this fact that they are mainly administrative issues."

When he announced the suspension, Cameroon's Health Minister Urbain Olanguena Awono noted certain dysfunctions in the trial and said corrective measures were needed. He refused to elaborate.

He also refused interviews after his statement, including with VOA.

Mr. Doh fears a long delay in resuming the trial could have serious consequences.

"It is not for me to decide when it starts, but the participants and the results of the studies could be affected by long delays," he said. "I am hoping this could be fine in the next one week or two maximum."

Similar studies are also being conducted on female sex workers in Ghana and Nigeria, and on homosexuals in the United States. But Cameroon's trial is seen as particularly important because most sub-types of HIV are found in the Central African country.

The trials are being run with the support of a $6.5 million grant from the U.S.-based Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.