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
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. With the 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.
Krisana is 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 director. 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."
She found 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 and Vietnam.
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 decreased."
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 treat Aids.
"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.
Having 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 the drugs.
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. ortunately the men asked only questions, not for any money, which she could ill afford to lose. For 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 homeland.
"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 Kannikar.
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 Africa. Pennapa Hongthong The Nation
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Published on July 12, 2007