After months of relative stability in government over HIV/AIDS treatment, we seem to be back on the rollercoaster of contradictions.
The problem this time hinges around the curious fondness our Health Minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has for Dr Matthias Rath, a discredited vitamin seller.
Rath has peddled his vitamin product, Vitacor, around the world. First he claimed it was a cure for heart disease, then cancer and now AIDS.
His claims have been refuted by numerous international bodies and experts.
Here are just a few examples. The Swiss Study Group for Complementary and Alternative Methods in Cancer (SKAK) and the Swiss Cancer League (SCL) found ‘no proof that the vitamin preparations of Dr. Matthias Rath have any effect on human cancer and advise against their use in cancer prevention and treatment’.
Pharmocology Professor Frank Meyer, writing in the British Medical Journal, found ‘no proper evidence for the claimed beneficial effects on morbidity, mortality, and quality of life associated with coronary heart disease, heart insufficiency, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, and diabetes’.
In Germany, Rath is being investigated in connection with the death of a nine-year-old boy, Dominik. The boy apparently died after being taken off cancer treatment and put on to Rath’s vitamins.
A number of countries don’t allow the sale of his products because they defy classification as nutritional supplements, medicines or foods.
The vitamin doses are too high for nutritional supplements. They haven’t passed the necessary scientific trials to be medicines, and they claim to be able to heal, which is not allowed for food products.
Yet in South Africa, Rath has had an almost free rein to promote his products. He even took out a double page advertisement in Parliament’s commemorative magazine on 10 years of democracy.
Two weeks ago, Tshabalala-Msimang refused to condemn the Rath Foundation’s activities at a meeting in Khayelitsha.
She has told journalists that the Rath Foundation is not undermining government’s position on HIV/AIDS treatment, but supporting it by promoting vitamins and micronutrients.
But Rath is doing far more than simply promoting the role of vitamins, minerals and trace elements in boosting sick people’s immunity.
He has formed an alliance with various AIDS denialists (who don’t believe HIV causes AIDS), and now claims there is no need for people to take ‘high-priced and toxic’ antiretroviral drugs if they take his products.
He fails to mention that Vitacor Plus, described as the foundation of his ‘cellular health programme’, costs around R185 ‘ substantially more than what government pays for a month’s supply of three antiretroviral drugs.
Besides, it is one thing for our Health Minister to promote foods such as beetroot, olive oil and garlic to people with HIV.
It is quite another to encourage immune-compromised people to take large qualities of micronutrients in the absence of proper research into the effects of this on their bodies.
High doses of iron, for example, can make a person with HIV more susceptible to tuberculosis, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) while high doses of Vitamin C can cause diarrhoea. Both conditions regularly kill people living with HIV.
According to the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), ‘Rath can act with impunity because an environment has been created that sanctions AIDS denialism and quackery’.
The TAC has given the Medicines Control Council and the Health Professions Council of SA until Wednesday ‘ Freedom Day ‘ to act against Rath or they will press ahead with legal action against him.
‘TAC has evidence that Matthias Rath runs unregistered medical practices in Cape Town townships and conducts unauthorised, unethical and dangerous experiments on people with HIV. Yet government has failed to stop him,’ says the organisation.
The TAC and Rath have locked horns over Rath’s insistence that his vitamins can be a substitute for antiretroviral drugs.
AIDS denialist Anthony Brink is now working for the Rath Foundation. Brink, who claims to have the ear of President Mbeki, had been silenced after government decided to provide ARVs to people who needed them.
AIDS denialists Dr David Rasnick and Medunsa’s Professor Sam Mhlongo, a close friend of Mbeki’s, are also working with the Rath Foundation.
Not surprisingly, the Rath Foundation has adopted Brink’s old tactic of accusing the TAC of being in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry. This has been furiously denied by the TAC, and is the basis for its planned litigation against Rath.
The rise of the Rath Foundation, and its message to HIV positive people to abandon their medication and embrace its vitamins products, is bad news for our country.
There are so many desperate issues related to the care and treatment of HIV/AIDS, such as the chronic shortage of doctors and nurses.
We cannot afford to be sidetracked by a vitamin seller who is undermining government’s ARV programme and confusing people in a cynical bid to sell his products.
e-mail Kerry Cullinan