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Using Antiretrovirals for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Has Sparked Controversy

By Kellee Terrell

September 23, 2011

In an age where there are almost 8,800 HIV-positive Americans anxiously on the AIDS Drug Assistance Program waiting list, new reports are coming out that HIV medications are being used by, and experimented on, people with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Understandably, this development has created an uproar with all eyes focused on Gilead Sciences, the makers of Viread, the HIV drug being used to treat chronic fatigue syndrome. The New York Times reported:

When medications have proved safe and effective for most patients, it is standard practice for pharmaceutical companies to see if the drugs have other applications. But with H.I.V. drugs, the practice has been unusually contentious, fostering debates about questionable science, safety and profiteering, and concerns that thousands of Americans infected with H.I.V. cannot get the medications ...

... The Food and Drug Administration approved Viread to treat chronic hepatitis B in adults in 2008. And after a 2009 study linked chronic fatigue syndrome -- a mysterious tiredness believed to afflict a million Americans -- to a retrovirus called XMRV, there was hope that H.I.V. drugs might also work against that ailment.

But that idea soured when other scientists could not reproduce the study's results and concluded that the findings were incorrect. Science, the medical journal that published the research (conducted by the Whittemore Peterson Institute of Reno) has taken the unusual step of asking for a retraction. The institute declined to comment for this column.

Many doctors still believe that some type of virus, even if not XMRV, causes chronic fatigue, and an unknown number of patients continue to try H.I.V. drugs as a treatment.

Ged Kenslea, a spokesman for AIDS Healthcare Foundation, told the Times, "They are giving these lifesaving drugs to people who do not have H.I.V., while those who need them are going without."

Do you agree with Kenslea? And with the recent successes of PrEP, should AIDS meds be used for people who are not living with HIV/AIDS?

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

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