It is no secret that our feathered and four-legged friends have been secretly indulging in antiretroviral (ARV) therapy for nearly a decade. Perhaps longer. ARVs, typically reserved for boosting the immunity of HIV-positive individuals, have found an unexpected place on the menus of pigs and chickens, sparking a fierce debate among scientists.
The revelation surfaced when a high-ranking official from the National Drug Authority (NDA) casually mentioned that they’ve known about this peculiar practice since way back in 2013. Apparently, ARVs, funded mainly by generous donors, have been dished out to combat African Swine Fever in pigs and Newcastle Disease in poultry.
Now, the scientific community is split down the middle over the potential consequences for human consumers of pork and chicken seasoned with traces of ARV medication. On one side, we have Dr. Hussein Oria from Makerere University’s School of Pharmacy, leading a team that found hints of AIDS drugs in meat sold around Wakiso and Kampala. Their concern? This gourmet experimentation could lead consumers to develop resistance to ARVs, should they later require them for HIV treatment.
However, in the land of science, there’s always a flip side. Some scientists are shrugging off the alarm bells, insisting that the threat level is hovering somewhere near the ‘minimal’ mark.
Dr. Oria, the bearer of the bad news, explained that when drugs enter the body of any living creature, they undergo a transformation. He said, “In drug metabolism [breakdown in the body], not all drugs are metabolized 100 percent. So, some remain unmetabolized.”
As per a 2020 report by Ritah Nakato, a pharmacology expert at Makerere University, these ARVs take their sweet time breaking down in pigs compared to humans. “Given the prolonged half-life of all three drugs (Efavirenz, nevirapine, and tenofovir), there is potential for significant residual amounts of any or all the three drugs in pork at slaughter as well as sale points,” the report solemnly proclaims.
Dr. Oria dropped another bombshell, explaining that even if a trace of the drug lingers within the animal, it poses a risk of drug resistance. He added that, “If organisms (infectious agents) are exposed to very low levels of a drug, then it cannot do anything to destroy those organisms but it gives them time to develop mechanisms to dodge those drugs.”
Despite the National Drug Authority’s soothing words that the ARV quantities used in fattening up the animals are as tiny as a microbe, Dr. Herbert Luswata, the Secretary General of the Uganda Medical Association, is worried sick. He fears this culinary trend may divert much-needed drugs away from hospitals where people with HIV/AIDS are crying out for them.
“Generally, when drugs enter into the body, they are metabolized and the form of the drug changes. So, when in the body, the organs like the liver change the drugs into something different,” he mused. Then he dropped this bombshell: “That is how a drug is able to treat diseases in humans and even in animals. After some time, it is removed from the body through urine, faeces, or sweat. For chicken, it is through the droppings.”
But wait, the NDA has something to say for itself. They want you to know that they’re only responsible for ensuring safe and effective medicines for humans, not animal feasts.
The ministry chipped in, explaining that farmers turned to ARVs to beef up their birds and pigs because feed prices have soared to the clouds. Quality concerns, it seems, were secondary.
Dr. Luswata of the Uganda Medical Association tried to reassure us. He pointed out that most drugs exit the body within 24 hours. So, if you’re dining on a pig that’s been ARV-juiced, worry not, as long as it’s been on the menu for more than a day. He emphasized, “There is no danger to that.”
Meanwhile, the Uganda Aids Commission and local researchers have been grappling with cases of HIV becoming resistant to ARVs. They blame it on folks not sticking to their meds. Dr. Klause Niyonsenga, a medical expert, did add that exposure to sub-therapeutic ARV levels in animals and humans is a culprit too.
In a final twist, Dr. Oria begged for more research to truly gauge the impact of ARV-infused pork and chicken on our health. We can only hope they find the answer before the next bizarre food trend takes off.