Henry Heimlich, the inventor of the famous anti-choking maneuver, announced this week that he soon will conduct human tests of a controversial new AIDS treatment in which patients are deliberately infected with malaria. Heimlich, 83, head of the Cincinnati-based Heimlich Institute, believes that using a curable form of the disease to induce high fevers can stimulate the body's immune system to fight HIV. He plans to begin the tests in five African nations and is working with doctors in the countries to organize the clinical trials. The technique was previously used in poor nations between 1918 and 1975 to combat syphilis that had spread to the brain, but that disease is now stopped at a much earlier stage by antibiotics.
Most U.S. AIDS experts believe the trials are dangerous and without scientific merit. "This comes up periodically, but malaria has never worked for anything," said Mark Herrington, executive director of Treatment Action Group, an AIDS advocacy organization. "Malaria kills 3 million people every year, and there seems to be evidence that malaria worsens HIV. These are huge, huge ethical issues. If Heimlich is really doing this, he should be put in jail." In 1993 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a memorandum saying malarial therapy could not be justified because it may well do more harm than good.
Heimlich cites 1990s studies showing improved survival for African children who were HIV-positive and had malaria. He said in a recent interview that inducing high malarial fevers seems to stimulate the immune system, though he is not sure why. A Heimlich pilot study of the malarial therapy was carried out in China between 1993 and 1996 on eight HIV-positive patients, but the trial participants were only followed for two years. "After treatment, levels of T cells increased rapidly," Heimlich said of that study. But trial participants were not treated with HIV antiretroviral medications and were not tested to determine the amount of virus in their blood. Heimlich said his nonprofit institute will spend about $100,000 to $150,000 per year on the new studies in Africa, but he said he hopes to uncover additional funding for the trials.