Saturday December 1 2007
If you were going to be actuarial about media coverage – an eighth of a column inch for each premature death perhaps – then this paper would be filled with diarrhoea and Aids. Today is World Aids Day: so come with me on a world tour of Aids quackery.
South Africa is traditionally where we would start such a voyage, headed as it is by President Thabo Mbeki, a man who remains an HIV denialist and recently told a biographer that he regrets withdrawing from publicly discussing his beliefs. He has compared Aids scientists to Nazi concentration camp doctors and portrayed black people who accepted orthodox Aids science as “self-repressed” victims of a slave mentality.
Mbeki pursued his own investigations on Aids therapies, resulting in government endorsement of Virodene, a home grown South African drug. Medical treatment for Aids cost $1,200 a month, but Virodene cost $6, “medicine developed in Africa for Africa”. Virodene was in fact based on the industrial solvent dimethylformamide, which is toxic, potentially lethal, and with – bizarrely – no proof of efficacy against HIV.
The Democratic Alliance is putting questions in parliament to the presidency about the ANC’s possible financial involvement in the drug, following fresh recent allegations that tens of millions of rand in cash were ferried from the party to the Virodene company.
Meanwhile The Namibia Economist reports that a product using the same industrial solvent is about to be shipped to several health facilities in the Congo. Gambian President Yahya Jammeh claims he can cure HIV, Aids and asthma, using charisma, magic, herbs, and charms. “The cure is a day’s treatment,” he says, “asthma, five minutes.”
In Nigeria Jeremiah Abalaka, a general surgeon working independently, is selling large quantities of a vaccine and a treatment for Aids. He self-administered the vaccine before dramatically injecting himself with HIV-positive blood on six separate occasions. The Nigerian Academy of Science visited his clinic and concluded his claim could not be verified, although Abalaka is now suing the Academy. “Abalaka hasn’t even got the facilities in the lab to produce any vaccine,” says Professor Olusegun Oke, vice-president of the academy. “His lab is virtually bare.”
Before you feel smug and superior, the Society of Homeopaths are holding a conference in London today featuring the work of Peter Chappell, who also claims he can make an immediate impact on the Aids epidemic using music encoded with his Aids remedies.
“Right now,” he says, “Aids in Africa could be significantly ameliorated by a simple tune played on the radio.” Damningly, contemptibly, not one single person from the homeopathy community has spoken out to criticise this lunacy.
And of course our own rather grand Patrick Holford, Britain’s leading nutritionist, who sells bottles of vitamin pills with his beaming face printed on them, writes, in the “fully revised and updated” 2004 edition of his 500,000 copy best seller “The Optimum Nutrition Bible”, the alarming words: AZT, a drug still routinely used alongside other drugs in Aids treatment, “is proving less effective than vitamin C”.
Aids funding from the US to developing countries routinely comes with religiously motivated edicts that Aids workers should not engage with prostitutes, and of course needle exchanges for drug users are frowned upon. And finally, most evilly, multinational pharmaceutical companies fight tooth and nail against countries who try to manufacture Aids drugs off-licence in public health emergencies, even when using the perfectly legitimate Doha Declaration. Nationalise the lot, I say.
Peddlers of nonsense treatments – and newspapers – trade in emotive anecdotes. Three million people died last year of Aids, and that figure elicits insufficient emotion, outrage, and coverage, because it is the polar opposite of an emotive anecdote. Nature outguns any man-made weapon, and it remains our greatest challenge. Our greatest impediment is wishful, brutal stupidity.
Please send your bad science to firstname.lastname@example.org