Thursday, September 17, 1998
Ben Collins is the spokesman for Project Inform, a San Francisco-based AIDS organization with close ties to the National Institutes for Health. He believes in and advocates for conventional wisdom concerning AIDS and HIV. HEAL activists can hint all they want at "hidden motivations" and power-hungry pharmaceutical companies, but Collins'' motivation is painfully personal: He is HIV-positive, and he''s as anxious as the next guy to live a long and happy life.
Collins tested positive in 1981, and has been through every treatment scheme imaginable. "I''ve had crystals on my belly, I''ve done dance and movement therapy, visualization exercises, group theater," he enumerates. "I have no problem with complementary therapies. I''ve gotten incredibly positive results from many of them. But I''ve also taken every drug in the book, with some good results."
Drug therapy has kept him healthier, Collins says. In January ''96, panicked by media reports of resistance to protease inhibitors, Collins stopped taking all his drugs. He focused on health, nutrition and relaxation. His viral load and his health stayed good for a year and a half.
But in the fall of ''97, Collins noticed that his viral load had started creeping upward, indicating the presence of HIV in his blood was increasing. And he was getting sicker. "My nutrition hadn''t changed, I wasn''t taking any of those ''terrible drugs,'' and I got sick," he says. "What do they think caused it? I had numerous skin infections, I felt the virus'' presence in my bones."
So Collins went on a four-drug combination therapy, including two protease inhibitors. "Within one week, all of my symptoms receded."
Along with the benefits came nasty side effects, including diarrhea and cramping. And Collins is still being monitored for possible long-term effects. But, he says, he feels "immeasurably better" since returning to his drug therapies.
"HEAL is absolutely right in saying that AZT has side effects," he says. "I''m not denying that. Any drug you put in your body has side effects for some people. We''re not talking about an ideal situation here, but a life-threatening situation where the cure is still being developed." If some people want to wait until there''s a "100 percent bonafide cure," Collins can''t argue with them. But he will argue with them when they start telling people not to take AIDS drugs.
"It''s very unsavory from our point of view, because people''s lives are at stake," he says.