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Doctor's License Is Revoked Over AIDS Treatment : Medicine: It's the first such action in California. The North Hollywood physician ordered catheters implanted so patients could inject an untested homemade chemical.

December 11, 1991|JACK CHEEVERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A North Hollywood physician who injected AIDS patients with a homemade chemical of no proven value has had his medical license revoked, the first such action against a California doctor accused of AIDS quackery.

Administrative law judge M. Gayle Askren canceled Valentine Birds' license after an investigation by state medical authorities found that he ordered catheters surgically implanted in seven AIDS sufferers so they could inject themselves with an untested substance that was formulated in a kitchen sink.

Investigators said Birds, 59, failed to consider effective AIDS treatments, lied to hospital officials about the purpose of the catheter implants and failed to properly monitor patients for infection and other adverse reactions following surgery.

Four AIDS patients died after injecting the substance, called Viroxan, although officials said there was no proof it directly caused the deaths. But they said at least two deaths were probably hastened by the treatment, and they accused Birds and Stephen Herman, an Orange County radiologist who developed Viroxan, of using patients as guinea pigs.

Authorities said there is no evidence Viroxan is safe or effective against acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and that it was never approved by government regulators for testing or use by humans. They said Herman manufactured Viroxan without proper sterility controls.

State medical authorities said the substance was derived from plants, but Herman disputed that.

Mark Snider, one of Birds' patients who took the substance, vomited and suffered muscle spasms for three days afterward, investigators said. He was later found lying immobile in his bathtub, where he had been for several days.

Snider, a well-known Hollywood floral designer, was subsequently admitted to a hospital and died four days later as a result of AIDS-related pneumonia, officials said. He also suffered from widespread infection associated with the catheter implanted in his chest.

Herman, 55, who is disabled and has not practiced medicine full time since 1984, surrendered his medical license in July after state prosecutors agreed to drop civil charges of gross negligence, incompetence, dishonesty and other offenses, said his attorney, Andrew Lloyd.

Herman still faces criminal charges in Orange County that he falsely advertised Viroxan and committed grand theft by taking money under false pretenses. The Los Angeles district attorney's office is studying possible criminal charges against Birds.

Authorities said some of Birds' patients who took Viroxan developed severe coughs, fever as high as 104 degrees and sensations of burning. One man developed jaundice.

Investigators said that besides administering Viroxan, Birds injected some of his AIDS patients with typhoid vaccine, which has no proven value in treating the disease, while failing to prescribe AZT or other drugs known to prolong the lives of some AIDS sufferers.

Birds, whose medical degree is in osteopathy, has practiced family medicine in Los Angeles and other Southern California communities since 1961. He has also served as medical director in a number of convalescent hospitals.

Medical officials said that because Birds' patients had badly weakened immune systems, they should not have been subjected to catheter surgery--which carries high infection risks--for administering an unproven remedy.

Birds told one patient that Herman was having "miraculous results" with Viroxan, officials said, although Herman never showed Birds any test results to that effect.

Authorities said Birds knew the substance was not approved by state or federal regulators, and falsely told hospital officials his patients needed catheters for treatment of cancer.

"Treating AIDS patients with an unproven remedy is worse than using patients as guinea pigs," said state Deputy Atty. Gen. Roy Hewitt, who prosecuted Birds on behalf of the state medical board.

He said scientists who conduct approved drug trials "would have given guinea pigs more close monitoring than Dr. Birds was monitoring these patients."

State officials sharply criticized Birds' care of Snider, who died in November, 1989, after Herman told him to take Viroxan and Birds arranged for catheter surgery.

About three weeks later, a friend found Snider curled in a fetal position in his tub, where he had lain naked for three days, according to a state summary of the incident.

Although the friend called Birds three times beginning about 1:30 a.m., pleading with him to come and help Snider, the doctor at first angrily refused but later relented, appearing at the apartment between 7 and 8 a.m., the summary stated.

After being taken to a hospital after 9 a.m., Snider was found to be suffering from shock, fever and dehydration and died four days later.

Birds' lawyer, Gene Girard, said Birds may seek to get his license back through a lawsuit. He said Herman "hoodwinked" Birds into believing that Viroxan had government approval.

Lloyd, Herman's lawyer, said Herman moved his manufacturing operations to Kenya after he was arrested last year, and Viroxan can still be purchased in Tijuana, Mexico.

He said it is undergoing tests at a "full-blown medical research facility" in Kenya, and the results are scheduled for publication soon in a major medical journal.

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