How a Medical Legend Maneuvered Celebrities into Treating AIDS Patients With Malaria

Each year 1-3 million people die from malaria. Another 1 million annually succumb to AIDS. You don’t need to be a physician to realize both of these diseases are pretty bad. Anyone with an ounce of compassion would favor eradicating these plagues from the face of the earth.

That’s why you would rightly be skeptical of anything as preposterous as intentionally infecting anyone with either disease. If someone told you that the best way to treat an AIDS patient — a person whose immune system has been given a knock-out punch by HIV — is by infecting that person with malaria, what would you say? The idea is so preposterous, and the objections so numerous that you wouldn’t be able to express your disbelief. It would be fair to say you might choke on your own words.

The scheme made sense to one fellow not too long ago. Because he was a man whose name held legendary status in the medical field, a lot of wealthy and influential people cast away their doubts and funded a crazy chapter in late-20th century medical research.

The spring of 1993 saw an impressive gathering of Hollywood’s elite. The venue for the event was the Bel Air home of Joanne Carson, ex-wife of Johnny Carson. Those in attendance included Estelle Getty, Jon Voight, Amy Irving, Bruce Davison, and others within the entertainment industry. The purpose of the gathering had nothing to do with the bright lights and silver screens of Hollywood. It dealt with the growing threat of AIDS.

In less than a decade, AIDS grew from obscurity to a major health emergency. It was felt particularly hard in the entertainment world that had lost several notable members to the disease. There was only one FDA-approved treatment, AZT, but it only offered the hope of slowing the disease’s progress. A cure was nowhere on the horizon.

In this gathering of celebrities, the star of the occasion was not an actor, but he was no stranger to Hollywood. In 1951, Dr. Henry married the daughter of Arthur Murray, the dance-studio king, and host of the TV variety show The Arthur Murray Party. This gave Dr. Henry special access to the celebrities of the entertainment world. It would be unfair to say that was the sole reason the celebrities at the Carson home listened to him. Dr. Henry was a well-known physician whose name carried a lot of weight in the medical field. It was more because of his medical expertise than his celebrity marriage that people listened to him that night.

Dr. Henry

Dr. Henry was looking for an innovative breakthrough in AIDS treatment. He told his audience about his promising research that would stimulate the immune system of AIDS patients, allowing the body to naturally overcome the HIV virus.

The proposal was daring, to say the least. He would treat AIDS with a readily-available substance. There would be no need for expensive, difficult-to-produce medication. Instead, he would stimulate the body’s immune system with “malariotherapy.” In other words, he would infect AIDS patients with malaria and allow one disease to fight the other.

If the idea seems too incredible to believe, Dr. Henry was quick to point to the astonishing results of his clinical trials. He also proudly pointed to the fact that his research had been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Because of his reputation and the incredible success stories from the initial testing phase, most of the doubters were converted. Talent Agent Sandy Bresler explained, “If malaria triggers temperature, that triggers your immune system. That made perfect sense to me as a layman. So there you are.”

Before the presentation was finished, he had sold the idea. The guest in attendance went to work spreading the word among their friends and colleagues. Dr. Henry quickly amassed more than $600,000 to fund the next step in his trials. Among those who contributed were Bob Hope, Ron Howard, Ed Asner, Ed Begley Jr., Ted Dawson, Muhammad Ali, Bette Midler, Anjelica Huston, and Jack Nicholson. Some of the biggest names in entertainment were eager to be part of this revolutionary treatment of a hated disease.

Having secured the funding, Dr. Henry started the next stage of his testing. He did this at a hospital in Guangzhou, China. The first patients paid $10,000 apiece to cover the cost of hospitalization, blood work, and a bonus to be paid to medical workers who had to come in contact with HIV.

The first two patients were recruited in July 1993. The next year, seven HIV-infected drug addicts were also recruited. Under the supervision of Dr. Chen Xiao Ping, the trials began. From the beginning, it was clear there was going to be a problem. Dr. Chen, writing to Dr. Henry, expressed concern about the character of the patients under his care: “It is very difficult to manage them in hospital. Among them some were prisoners, thieves and all are drug addicts. They stole money, articles of other patients and medical workers, and fight with each other and with other patients. They have made a big chaos in the hospital.” In another letter, Dr. Chen advised Dr. Henry that it was necessary to hire additional security guards to keep the patients under control and to stop unwanted questions about what was going on at the hospital.“Because it is not allowed to do any research except in Yunnan, we have to keep the research confidential,” it read.

The reports that followed moved beyond security concerns and the results of the trials. They lacked the precision one would hope would be associated with human medical trials. A letter from October 22, 1996, stated, “Case 6 died on July 5, 1996; the cause of his death is unknown. … One month before he died, he got fever, cough with bloody sputum, diarrhea (bloody stool) and emaciation, heavy anorexia. Maybe he died of drug use (overdose or withdrawal?) but we could not get detailed information about his drug use from his family.” He concluded with, “Or he died of AIDS. Nobody knows.”

Not one to put all of his eggs in one basket, Dr. Henry expanded his trials to East Africa. There, he oversaw infecting 13 HIV-positive sex workers with malaria. The results, as you might guess, were less than successful.

Rather than be discouraged, Dr. Henry doubled down, insisting his treatment would work. Not only would it cure AIDS, he said, but it would also get rid of cancer and Lyme disease.

In support of his claim, he pointed to the research of Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg. In 1917, he treated neurosyphilis patients by injecting them with malaria. After two weeks of 105-degree fevers, the malaria was treated with quinine. Once the malaria was under control, the patients were much improved.

By this point, more than a few skeptics began to take a closer look at some of Dr. Henry’s claims. They immediately found it interesting that the initial trials were held in Mexico City, allowing him to bypass all of the protocols established by the U.S. Department of Human Health and Services. His tests were all reported without any peer review, control groups, or animal testing. The “published” report in the New England Journal of Medicine was actually a letter to the editor, not a scientific paper.

As for relying on the 1917 research of Wagner-Jauregg, a closer look at the Austrian’s studies was not as promising as Dr. Henry had suggested. A 1993 public letter from the Centers for Disease Control concluded that “controlled studies were never performed… and published reports suggest that clinical response was unpredictable.” About 20 percent of Wagner-Jauregg’s patients died. As for the rest of his studies, those are not helped by the fact that he became an unabashed supporter of Nazism and called for “racial cleansing.”

The whole “malariotherapy” approach was quietly abandoned, although some of Dr. Henry’s financial backers still insist he was a visionary who was on the right track. Even so, the FDA cited 13 “deficiencies” of the study in its 2000 report.

Perhaps most telling is the campaign waged by Dr. Henry’s son, Peter, to let the world know that his dad was a quack and fraudster. “My father is skilled at enticing people,” he said. “He always had an unquenchable appetite for attention and praise. After he became famous, that need seemed to take over his life. Plus, he always loved rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. Being invited into the homes of well-meaning but naive Hollywood stars must have been a dream come true for him.”

How is it that Dr. Henry maneuvered so many people to contribute to something that has so many things wrong with it that you might choke before you can spit them out? Maybe it’s because choking and maneuvers are something he specialized in.

Before he delved into the ethically dubious experimentation of malariotherapy, Dr. Henry became famous for a procedure that has saved countless people from choking to death. The procedure that bears his name is what caused so many wealthy celebrities to give their trust and money to Dr. Henry Heimlich.

Visit Peter Heimlich’s website for many more disturbing stories about his father.

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