Treatment that left virus victim cynical: Confidence in the Aids drug AZT has been dented. What is it like to be an HIV patient, and what is medicine's way forward?

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FOR YEARS, Stephen Boyd suspected that he was HIV-positive but refused to take a test. 'There didn't seem any point - I was not convinced there were any drugs that could help if the answer was yes, so I chose to avoid the issue.'

In the late Eighties, Mr Boyd, 46, of Notting Hill, west London, started to suffer from night sweats, infections, skin problems and a general feeling of weakness. During this period, trials in the United States suggested AZT - the first drug to be licensed to treat Aids - could benefit people with HIV.

'As more reports of the drug were published I felt that if I was HIV- positive something could be done.'

In August 1991, Mr Boyd took a test. He was positive. 'It didn't come as a shock. I'm a high-risk life- style person (he is homosexual) who had a lot of casual sex in the Seventies and early Eighties. I almost knew I was HIV-positive so I was actually relieved finally to know where I stood. Initially I was very upset, especially with the idea that I faced an almost certain early death.'

In the following six months, Mr Boyd had what he described as a 'physical and emotional collapse', which included chest and kidney infections. At about the same time, the art gallery that he owned with his partner in Kensington, west London, went bust. He also lost the flat that went with the shop.

After several visits to an Aids clinic, his doctor advised him to take AZT, which he started in February last year. 'My main worry was getting the terrible side effects and sickness other people on AZT had suffered.' Fortunately, there were no severe side effects from the drug and his T-cell count - a type of blood cell that is vital to the immune defences of the body - doubled. But the drug did not appear to improve his health.

'I started to get increasingly worried about the long-term toxic effects of taking AZT. I was not convinced it was doing me any good, but there were psychological implications which I was very unhappy about.' He stopped taking the drug after six months and his T-cell count immediately dropped to its pre-AZT level.

'Since finishing with AZT my health has been quite good. I still get tired very easily, but at least I don't worry about what bad effects AZT may be having.'

The announcement on Thursday that, according to a new study, AZT is ineffective in preventing the development of Aids in healthy HIV-positive people, came as no surprise to Mr Boyd. 'I have become very cynical about press reports on anything to do with HIV, especially when they claim to have made a new discovery. I'd rather wait until the doctors have finished all the trials.'

(Photograph omitted)