U.S. AIDS Research on Pregnant Women Criticized

A study by the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has drawn criticism for denying medication to some pregnant women with AIDS in Africa and Thailand.

For the past two years, researchers have studied the effects of AZT on AIDS transmission between mother and fetus. Half of the 12,211 women in seven countries got varying doses of the drug, while the other half got a placebo.

Scientists have already confirmed that AZT cuts the pregnancy transmission rate by two thirds, yet because the regimen costs about $1000 per person, researchers wanted to know if AZT would be effective in lower doses, thereby lowering the cost for third-world women.

Marcia Angell, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, said the studies violated international standards, and compared the research to the infamous Tuskegee study, in which poor black men with syphilis were falsely told they were being treated. Helene Gayle of the CDC said that the women were fully informed of the risks, and that it was better that some women got treated than none. Without the study, none would have had access to AZT.

In the U.S., AIDS studies rarely use placebo control groups, because AIDS advocates have demanded drug therapy for all patients. Critics say that more than 1,000 babies will contract AIDS, most of which could have been prevented with AZT. If pregnant women are not treated, about 25% of the infants will get AIDS. If they get AZT, only around 8% will.

Dr. Glenda Gray, a South African pediatrician who does similar studies said that 30% of the children admitted to their wards every day have AIDS. “I’ve buried hundreds of children. I’m seeing their mothers die. We need to find a magic bullet for every woman in the world.” She said that if the critics who do not like placebo studies and the researchers who financed the studies find that a cheaper AZT regimen is effective, they should “put their money where their mouth is” and pay for treatment for poor women.


The Washington Post and New York Times - September 18, 1997