Investigation: Can HIV Treatment Kill?

Posted at: 05/22/2013 9:28 AM
Updated at: 05/22/2013 9:30 AM

(ABC 6 NEWS) -- For the past few months, we've been following the story of baby Rico, the Brownsdale baby born with HIV.
His parents fought Mower County to keep him off HIV treatment for fear the drugs would kill him.

In the end a judge sided with the county.

Of course, the center of the case surrounds the court-ordered medication. We wanted to learn more about these prescriptions to in turn help you understand them.

We looked at the history of antiretroviral treatment.

The original HIV drug known as AZT and a newer cocktail of drugs recommended today.
What are they and can they kill?

"The average life expectancy of people with HIV on antiretroviral treatment is approaching that of normal population," said Dr. Keith Henry, director of HIV research at Hennepin County Medical Center.

If anyone knows HIV treatment, it's Dr. Keith Henry of Hennepin County Medical Center. He's been studying the virus basically since the first cases were known about in the U.S. in 1985, he set up the first HIV clinic in Minnesota.

There he prescribed patients AZT, the first antiretroviral drug approved by the FDA to treat the virus.

"I think it was a vital prescription for many patients," said Dr. Henry.

But not everyone agrees. In fact, some, like the Nagels, believe HIV treatment like AZT kills. Search online and you can find the website aztsucks.com.

Rico's mother developed painful side effects while on AZT as a child, so her parents took her off it because they thought she would die. Now that Rico has HIV, naturally the Nagels feel the same.

"We don't want him on drugs," said Cheryl Nagel in an interview earlier this year with ABC 6 News.

"There was a time there were a few kernels of truth that the treatment was toxic and not effective. That's 25 years ago and we've moved on now," said Dr. Henry.

Dr. Henry says treatment dramatically improved in 1996. That's  when a combination of drugs started being used. Three, now sometimes four. That advance was so great, Dr. Henry say he hasn't written a prescription for AZT in almost 15 years.

We asked Dr. Henry, does antiretroviral treatment kill?

"Yes they can kill. I have probably treated 4,000 HIV/AIDS patients in Minnesota and there's probably been several that have had adverse affects. We're talking one in 2,000, one in 3,000."

However, he believes the benefits outweigh the risks.

"Not only do you protect health but you prevent transmission," said Dr. Henry.

The Nagels say Rico's mother leads a normal, healthy life without any medication, which Dr. Henry says is possible for about 2-3 percent of HIV positive people.

So would that be the case for Rico if he was taken off the medication?

"A baby is a wild card. You assume the genetics are the same as the mothers but everybody is different," said Dr. Henry.

To those who deny these drugs are helpful, Dr. Henry says "the science is contrary to that. people use to think the earth was flat."

He says for a child born with HIV, he'd recommend medication.

That, along with advanced therapy and more people knowing their HIV status, "I honestly believe we can have an AIDS-free generation 30 years from now," said Dr. Henry.

Pharmacists at Hennepin County Medical Center say antiretroviral medication can cost between two to $2,000-$3,000 a month.
As for the future, Dr. Henry says he's working on clinical trials to test a new HIV treatment. One that does not involve pills. Instead,  patients would receive an injection every few months.