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Activists Wary of Report That AZT May Harm Minority AIDS Patients

February 15, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ AIDS activists are cautioning blacks and Hispanics not to read too much into a new study that suggests minorities may be harmed by early treatment with the anti-AIDS drug AZT.

The study findings, though inconclusive, also illustrate the need to get more minorities into clinical trials where drugs are tested and to study how intravenous drug use, access to routine health care and other factors affect treatment, the activists said Thursday.

″You have to test the drugs in the population that is going to be taking them,″ said Mark Harrington of the New York-based AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, known as ACT UP, which has pushed for expanding clinical trials and including more women and minorities.

″People used to stigmatize our desire for inclusion of all affected populations as somehow a political imperative,″ he told a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee. ″But it’s not. ... It’s a medical, it’s an ethical, it’s a scientific and a political imperative.″

The Veterans Affairs Department study, released Thursday, indicated that early treatment with AZT may not benefit, and may even harm, blacks and Hispanics infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

For whites, the study supported earlier studies that found early treatment slowed progression of the disease.

Based on those earlier studies, the FDA last year said AZT could be recommended for adults infected with the virus that causes AIDS when they have mild or no symptoms of the disease.

Members of the FDA advisory committee said the findings of the new VA study were disturbing but not strong enough to warrant changing the government’s treatment recommendation.

Some on the panel, however, said they would inform their minority patients of the findings and that the information should be made available to other physicians immediately, rather than wait six to eight months for the findings to be published.

″The findings may be a fluke, but I’m concerned they might not be,″ said Dr. Richard O’Brien, a researcher at the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Dr. Wayne Greaves, head of the infectious disease division at Howard University and a consultant to the panel, said that while he agreed the evidence was not strong enough to relabel AZT, he would tell his minority patients about the study.

″I will tell them the data contradicts earlier studies, that early AZT therapy may not be useful and may even be harmful to minority patients,″ he said. The study ″is preliminary and will need to be replicated.″

Leaders of the National Minority AIDS Council and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force cautioned that it would be premature to draw any definitive conclusions from the study and said they were concerned it could send the wrong message to blacks and Hispanics carrying the virus.

″We are concerned that misinterpretation of this study will add yet another potential for discrimination against people of color with HIV and AIDS, not to mention discourage them from seeking AIDS drugs,″ said Belinda Rochelle, a lobbyist for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Paul Kawata, executive director of the National AIDS Minority Council said his concern was that ″we must not send people of color with HIV infection underground. This study has the potential to take away hope for infected minorities.″

The VA study was small, with 338 participants, and the results were inconsistent with other, larger studies, the activists and committee members noted. It also was not designed to measure racial differences, and therefore might not be an accurate reflection, they said. It did not distinguish between blacks and Hispanics, but rather lumped them into a single group.

In addition, the VA study was not able to measure the importance of other factors, such as socioeconomic status, lifestyle and access to routine medical care.

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