Tiko Kerr isn't angry any more. But the acclaimed West Coast artist has reason to be even more bitter than he was when Health Canada originally refused him, and four others dying of HIV/AIDS, access to two new unlicensed drugs that hadn't yet been tested in this country.
You may recall Mr. Kerr's fight with Health Canada last year. Because of his celebrity, he became the front man for five men who were falling to the disease and whose only hope resided in two antiretroviral drugs known as TMC114 and TMC125.
Although Mr. Kerr became the public face of the battle, the real force behind it was Dr. Julio Montaner, head of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver and one of the world's foremost experts on the disease.
Dr. Montaner couldn't understand why the bureaucrats at Health Canada would not allow the five men access to the drugs, given their bleak medical outlook. In other words, what was there to lose? If they didn't get the drugs, they were going to die, likely soon. If the drugs didn't work, they were going to die, likely soon.
The issue, as you may recall, became a political firestorm that blew up in the middle of the federal election. Pretty soon New Democrat Svend Robinson was holding news conferences, and Liberal Hedy Fry was holding news conferences, and when Health Canada relented and agreed to let the five become part of a groundbreaking clinical trial involving the drugs, everyone was trying to claim credit.
In some ways, HIV/AIDS is all about numbers. If you have the disease, you're concerned about two in particular: the level of the killer virus in your system and your CD4 count, which is the number of infection-fighting T-cells in your body. Untreated, the levels of both go in opposite directions -- the virus levels increase while the number of T-cells decreases.
Going into the trial, which began on Jan. 5, Mr. Kerr's viral load measured at 100,000 per millilitre of blood. They don't measure levels beyond that. Mr. Kerr says his load was likely in the hundreds of thousands. In other words, out of control.
By Jan. 18, less than two weeks after taking the new drugs, his viral load had dropped to 7,320 and a week after that had fallen again to just over 2,000. It is now hovering around 200. The goal is to reduce the viral load to "undetectable" levels -- 50 or below.
Three of the five HIV-positive men participating in the trials have seen their viral loads drop below the "undetectable" level, including Michael Forshaw, a 64-year-old Anglican minister, who was in the worst shape of the bunch, Dr. Montaner said.
As for Mr. Kerr's CD4 count, it was below 100 at the start of the trials. It is now 160 and slowly, slowly climbing. A healthy person's CD4 count is typically between 400 and 1,330. A count below 200 exposes a person to the kinds of infections associated with AIDS.
That isn't the only good news.
The two new drugs have drastically reduced the number of pills Mr. Kerr and the others need to take every day. Not long ago, Mr. Kerr was taking 80 pills a day -- 40 in the morning, 40 at night. He often developed pill fatigue, a condition that occurs when your mind can no longer tolerate the idea of taking any more drugs.
"I would begin to retch at the very sight of a pill," Mr. Kerr recalled the other day at his studio. "I got to the point where I'd try and get them down and vomit them back up."
He administers the TMC125 with the aid of a carbon dioxide-powered gun that he uses to inject the medicine into various parts of his body. In addition to the TMC114, he takes a couple of other anti-retroviral drugs, an anti-bacteria preventive, multivitamins, pills for depression, hypertension and high cholesterol (byproducts of the other drugs) and deteriorating eyesight, among other conditions.
"I take six to 10 pills in the morning and the same at night," says Mr. Kerr. "It's really quite manageable."
Mr. Kerr and the others are not naïve enough to believe they have been cured. There have been so-called miracle drugs before that worked for a while before the disease began its slow and deadly march anew. But Dr. Montaner says the early results are extremely encouraging.
Mr. Kerr says he's feeling better than he ever has -- more alive. The fight with Health Canada changed him and changed his art, too. It is not as light and happy as it used to be. There is more emotion in it, some of it pleasant, some of it not so pleasant.
There is one painting that hangs in his studio that speaks to where he is now, or at least where he was not that long ago. It is a painting of a hospital room, with just a bed. There is a TV hanging from the ceiling. The walls are green. There is a bed tray on wheels. It could be any hospital room anywhere in the world.
It is where Mr. Kerr thought he was going to die, not that long ago. In that room. The painting, which is now called Meditations on Compassion, had another name for the longest time.
"I called it 'My Government is Trying to Kill Me,' " says Mr. Kerr, who is selling more of his artwork now than ever before. "I couldn't believe their audacity, telling me my life had no worth."
He's not angry, even when he thinks that he and the four others might be dead right now if the negative publicity surrounding their case hadn't forced Health Canada to acquiesce and allow them access to the new drugs.
"I can't waste my time feeling bitter," he says. "Because the truth is we don't know how much time we have left, any of us."