Thailand's Aids angel
Thanks to Krisana Kraisintu, Thailand became the first country to
create generic HIV drugs. Now she's teaching the world how to make them, but she
still hasn't got credit at home
Published on July 12,
In late 2002 Krisana Kraisintu quit her job at the
Government Pharmaceutical Organisation and headed for the war-torn Democratic
Republic of Congo. She knew how to make GPO-Vir - one of the cheapest drug
treatments for HIV/Aids - and vowed that she wouldn't rest until every African
nation could do the same.
Now 55, she's still there in the sub-Sahara,
roaming from place to place in a bid to honour that promise.
backing of German medical-aid organisation Action Medeo, Krisana has achieved
her goal in Congo and Tanzania. Both hit hard by HIV/Aids, they are now making
their own generic drugs to treat the virus, as well as malaria.
currently in Zambia training technicians to do the same. She wants it to be the
third country on her success list, followed by Ethiopia.
"When I look into
the eyes of African children, I see their hope," she tells The Nation during a
brief visit home. "I just can't detach myself from the region."
Born on Koh
Samui to a family of doctors, Krisana earned a bachelors degree in pharmacy at
Chiang Mai University and completed her doctorate in pharmaceutical chemistry at
Bath University in England.
She spent 22 years with the government agency,
establishing a Research and Development Institute, of which she became the first
Krisana and her team made great strides. In 1995 they completed
the first generic version of AZT, the anti-retroviral drug. Sold to the Health
Ministry to prevent mother-to-child transmission, it made Thailand the first
developing nation to give the world a generic Aids drug.
Then in April 2002
came GPO-Vir, a single-pill combination of three Aids drugs - lamivudine,
stavudine and nevirapine.
Unfortunately, Krisana says, there was little
executive support for her work at the organisation. "They didn't believe we
could produce our own generic Aids drugs with our limited budget."
the way, and did everything on her own - from research and buying the raw
materials to manufacturing and packaging.
"The good thing about being left
to work alone was that I got to know every step in the process, from laboratory
to market, and these are the knowledge and skills I'm transferring to the
Africans," she says.
Before she created GPO-Vir, tens of thousands of people
died simply because they couldn't afford patented Aids treatments. As many lives
have since been saved by GPO-Vir, not only in Thailand, but also Cambodia, Laos
Thai health authorities had previously been unable to provide
treatment to people with HIV because of the high drug prices, confirms Dr
Sanguan Nittayarampong, secretary general of the National Health Office.
Though he doesn't know Krisana personally, Sanguan credits her for the
success of the government's universal health scheme in providing Aids treatment.
"She saves a lot people. The death rate among Aids patients has dramatically
Kannikar Kijtiwatchakul, who works in the Bangkok office of
Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), is equally appreciative.
"What she has done benefits not only Thais but the whole world, and the
developing countries in particular. Unlike the big drug firms, she never wanted
to monopolise the rights over the drugs she developed. The only thing she wants
is to give poor countries access to the drugs."
Thailand's success in
developing GPO-Vir showed other developing countries that they could produce
their own versions of Aids drugs, Kannikar adds.
Making the drugs, Krisana
discovered for herself and now repeats everywhere she goes, is not as expensive
as the major drug firms claim. She doesn't speak the same language as the drug
corporations - they talk in terms of profits, while Krisana addresses humanity.
She fully supports the decision of the Public Health Ministry to impose
compulsory licences on three expensive, patented drugs, two of which are used to
"Life-saving drugs should be affordable for all," she says,
adding that she's mystified why the ministry is still negotiating with drug
firms to lower their prices now that licences have been imposed.
witnessed the decline in Aids-related deaths in Thailand, Krisana decided it was
time to help elsewhere.
"In Africa, no one believed they could produce their
own drugs," she says.
Aids activists have dubbed her "the gypsy warrior" - a
name picked up by interna-tional news media.
In 2002, Krisana says, only 15
per cent of Africans living with HIV/Aids had access to the drugs. By 2005, 65
per cent could afford treatment, thanks to their own, locally made versions of
Her work is not easy, and it took her months to adjust to the
climate and other conditions. During her first few months in Congo she was
unable to use the tap water due to an allergic reaction. She had to cleanse her
face with soda water and wash her feet with Fanta pop.
Wherever language was
a problem, Krisana, who speaks English, relied on her art skills, drawing
pictures of what she wanted. "Sometimes I drew a fish and they still served me
chicken," she laughs.
The difficulties weren't always funny. One night in
2002, driving into Lagos from its airport, 90 minutes outside the Nigerian
capital, she was stopped by a group of gun-toting men in uniform. She was
ordered out of the car and interrogated.
The same thing happened four more
times that night, a different armed squad each time. Fortunately the men asked
only questions, not for any money, which she could ill afford to lose.
her troubles and her victories, Krisana received the Letten Foundation's 2004
Global Scientific Award, and the following year she got a Reminders Day award
from an Aids organisation.
Stories about her have appeared in the New York
Times, Germany's Der Spiegel and France's Le Figaro. This past spring her battle
against the corporate giants was the subject of a play called "Cocktail" that
was performed at Louisiana State University.
The play looked at her struggle
to sway the Thai government as well but, having overcome official doubt and
shown the way forward, Krisana has still not received any accolades in her
"I heard that she was nominated for a pharmaceutical-related
award, but I don't know why the government hasn't recognised her," says activist
Krisana, it goes without saying, isn't interested in awards. She
set her own goal - access for all - and she's still trying to achieve it in