Snake oil salesmen and dodgy HIV “cures”


NAIROBI/JOHANNESBURG, – In January, Uganda’s National Drug Authority arrested sales representatives of a company selling a drug that purports to cure HIV; the firm’s owners are not licensed to sell medicine and are being sought by the police.

The drug, known as Virol ZAPPER, was being sold in 37ml liquid doses, each costing about US$210; patients were advised to take 10 drops daily. It was being advertised on local radio and TV stations as a miracle cure for HIV.

The sale of such “cures” is a profitable racket for charlatans willing to take advantage of desperate HIV-positive people; here is a collection of some dodgy treatments that have made the news in Africa over the years:

Tanzania – In 2011, tens of thousands of people from all over East Africa flocked to the tiny village of Loliondo in Tanzania seeking a cure for several diseases, including diabetes, tuberculosis and HIV. Ambilikile Mwasapile, a former Lutheran pastor, was charging 500 Tanzanian shillings – about $0.33 – for a cup for his concoction.

Several sick people died in the queues, which at their peak numbered 15,000 people. Studies are being conducted to determine the properties of Mwasapile’s treatment.

South Africa – A 2008 Cape High Court judgment ruled that clinical trials of multivitamins in the treatment of HIV/AIDS by controversial vitamin salesman Matthias Rath were unlawful, and stopped them. The court also prohibited Rath from publishing any more advertisements claiming that his product, VitaCell, cured AIDS, pending further review by the Medicines Control Council.

Rath, who had been operating in South Africa since about 2004, claimed his multivitamins treated AIDS, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, bird flu and numerous other illnesses. Rath ran numerous advertisements aimed at convincing HIV-positive people to take his high-dose multivitamins rather than ARVs, available free-of-charge through the public health system, which he claimed were “toxic”.

Kenya – In 2008, the government warned HIV-positive people in the country’s eastern Coast Province to reject herbal “cures” peddled by fake herbalists who claimed their concoctions contained unique ingredients that could boost the immune system and even cure HIV.

An estimated 80 percent of Kenyans use traditional healers either exclusively or in conjunction with western medicine; the government is drafting regulations to stop fraudulent herbalists from practising.

Gambia – In 2007, President Yahya Jammeh was roundly denounced by AIDS activists when he said he had found a cure for HIV/AIDS and began treating citizens. Shortly after his announcement, Jammeh expelled the most senior UN official in the country for questioning his “cure”.

The programme is still running, but more Gambians are choosing ARVs over Jammeh’s treatment.

Ethiopia – In 2007, thousands of HIV-positive patients flocked to Entoto, an ancient mountain north of the capital, Addis Ababa, seeking a “holy water” cure for AIDS after local priests said they could cure HIV.

The Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, later advised patients to continue with their ARVs even as they sought healing at Entoto.

São Tome and Principe – In 2007, questions were raised about Dorviro-Sida, or “Put AIDS to sleep” in Portuguese, an anti-AIDS herbal remedy produced by Amancio Valentim, president of the Association of Traditional Medicine of São Tome and Principe. Valentim claimed three tablespoons of the brownish syrup, taken every day before meals, could reduce the viral load and make patients feel better; he said four patients who had taken the drug for four years had tested negative for HIV.

AIDS activists were concerned the drug could make HIV-positive people complacent about taking their ARVs, and the health ministry said it did not support Valentim’s treatment.

South Africa – In 2006, a clinic in South Africa’s east coast city of Durban began to sell “ubhejane” – a herbal mixture believed to treat HIV/AIDS.

The controversial traditional medicine received vast media coverage, mainly due to the backing it received from influential political figures such as the former health minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, and provincial health officials. Ubhejane, a dark brown liquid sold in old plastic milk bottles, had not undergone any clinical trials to test its efficacy. All that the tests confirmed was that it was not toxic.

But HIV-positive patients were far more willing to accept the traditional medicine as an effective remedy, flocking to the clinic to buy a full course of the herbal remedy that retailed at R374 ($40).

Uganda – In 2006, the Ugandan government banned the use of a popular anti-AIDS herb remedy known as “Khomeini”, after tests found it provided no cure. Iranian Sheikh Allagholi Elahi claimed the drug – which contained olive oil and honey and cost $1,650 per dose – could cure HIV/AIDS and TB in three weeks.

Studies by experts in Uganda and Kenya found that while patients had gained weight due to the nutritional content of the drug, it was incapable of curing HIV.

kr/kn/mw source