The Dr Rath Health Foundation, led by German national Dr Matthias Rath, claims that its vitamin products can reverse the course of AIDS and says on its website that it is conducting a ‘clinical trial’ in the township.
However, the Foundation does not have the approval of the Medicines Control Council (MCC) to conduct a trial, has not registered its products with the MCC and makes unsubstantiated claims about their healing powers — all in violation of the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act.
Health-e has interviewed family members of two women who died within weeks of starting to take the vitamins, and has affidavits from five Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) volunteers who say they that, after agreeing to take the pills, they were photographed and had blood taken without giving proper consent. These affidavits were contained in a complaint the TAC lodged with the MCC in May
The MCC says it has been investigating the Rath Foundation since April. However, Registrar of medicines Dr Humphrey Zokufa, who is heading the Rath investigation, failed to respond to numerous messages and faxes and the original investigator, Lionel Snyman, who has been taken off the case.
SA National Civic Organisation (Sanco) members have been acting as agents for the Rath Foundation, and have set up ‘clinics’ throughout the township. However, Sanco members refused the Sunday Times access to one of these clinics, a small pink house in Site B.
Sanco street committee members target people in their areas known to have HIV or to be sick, and encourage them to attend one of the ‘clinics’ where they are prescribed up to 20 vitamin tablets a day.
‘They will go to that family, often with a pack of groceries and they encourage the person not to take the antiretrovirals, but to rather use the vitamins,’ says South African Communist Party district secretary Luthando Nogcinisa.
The Rath Foundation and Sanco have also been holding public meetings in Khayelitsha where a group of patients testify to the healing properties of the vitamins.
According to local SACP and Cosatu leaders, Sanco street committee members are being paid R100 for every patient they recruit. ‘Mrs T’ describes in her affidavit how a Sanco woman was paid R300 for bringing the three patients to the clinic. However, Sanco chairperson Ndzanywa Ndibongo has denied this.
Sanco says it is ‘honoured’ to work with Rath, but the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), SACP and local health workers have condemned the Foundation for conducting ‘human experiments’.
Meanwhile, HIV positive people desperate for a ‘cure’ are easily persuaded to take the vitamins in the place of anti-retrovirals or prophylactic medication, which keeps life-threatening infections at bay.
Yandiswa* buried her younger sister, 37-year-old Thandi*, in April. She is certain that when the two Sanco women arrived at their home, they handed Thandi her death certificate.
Thandi, a security guard, had been sickly for some time and had been treated for various infections, including tuberculosis.
On March 16, Thandi arrived home and told Yandiswa that two women had introduced her to new medication. ‘She said that they were going to observe her for two months and that she would get better,’ said Yandiswa.
The women took her to a Sanco clinic in Site C. ‘She was told to strip down and she was photographed from various angles. She also told me that they put her on a drip for the whole day. When she got home, I could see her face and hands were swollen. She had to take 14 tablets every day,’ said Yandiswa.
‘She was dizzy. She would vomit. She grew weak, she lost her appetite and she told me she was losing her senses. She couldn’t even go to the toilet,’ says Yandiswa.
According to Yandiswa, a person who claimed to be a doctor from the Sanco-Rath clinic came to their house on one occasion. ‘My sister was really sick, but the doctor told me she was fine and that their pills would soon take effect,’ she said.
One night, three weeks after starting on the vitamins, Thandi vomited non-stop but believed that this showed her body was being cleansed of disease. When Yandiswa called an ambulance, Thandi refused to get into it. She told her sister that she had been instructed by the Sanco women not to go to hospital but to visit their clinic in an emergency.
A few hours later she was dead. Five hours after her death, one of the Sanco women arrived and took away all the medication, erasing any traces of Thandi’s treatment.
Across the road from Yandiswa’s house, Matshaya* recalls the day the same Sanco women arrived at his one-roomed home to see his wife, Noluthando*.
Perched on a homemade wooden bench, the father of three struggles to speak about how rapidly his soft-spoken wife’s condition had deteriorated.
Matshaya says Noluthando did not yet need antiretroviral drugs but had been getting prophylactic treatment to ward off TB and pneumonia and multi-vitamins from the local clinic. ‘She had ulcers, but that was it,’ he recalls.
He says the Sanco members convinced his wife that the Rath Foundation’s pills ‘would make the HIV much better’.
‘She was told to take 10 tablets in the morning and 10 in the evening. The day after she had started taking it she became very dizzy and incoherent. She vomited and became weaker and weaker. We took her to the (government) clinic where the doctor advised her to not take the Rath medicine, but to rather continue with her other medication,’ said Matshaya.
Matshaya says he is convinced that she didn’t stop taking the pills as he worked long hours and could not monitor her medication. Her condition continued to deteriorate. She died within three weeks.
Meanwhile, Nandipha Ntsholo and four other patients, who want to remain anonymous as they have not disclosed their HIV status publicly, have made affidavits about their experiences at the Sanco-Rath ‘clinics’.
Ntsholo and two others went to the Sanco-Rath ‘clinic’ in Site C earlier this year to gather information on how the clinic operated. She was told to complete a questionnaire and after this, a woman in a white coat stuck a needle in her arm and drew blood.
The three were then told to strip down to their underpants and photographed.
‘We were told the photographs were compulsory’ and would be used ‘to demonstrate to the South African government the efficacy of the treatment Dr Rath prescribes,’ said Ntsholo.
Close-up photographs were also taken of abnormalities on Ntsholo’s skin and she was told to apply brandy to the spots.
Ntsholo was then given four different medications to boost her immune system and told to take a total of 18 tablets a day.
One of Ntsholo’s companion, ‘Mr Z’, said he was offered R770 if he returned to the clinic for a follow-up bringing ‘all the empty medication bottles to prove I had taken the vitamins’.
‘Mrs T’ described in her affidavit how, after being approached by a woman in her street about the vitamins, she went with four HIV positive friends to a clinic.
‘Two little bottles of blood was taken from us without asking our permission,’ said ‘Mrs T’. ‘The lady who organised us received R300 and was told to buy us food, but she didn’t.’
The Foundation’s products, Vitacor Plus, Epican Forte, Lysin C Drink Mix and Vita Cell, contain vitamins, minerals and lesser known ingredients such as Green Tea Leaf extract and Bioflavonoids.
Patients at the ‘clinics’ are being told to take doses that far exceed the recommended daily allowance for vitamins.
“Prescribing excessively high doses is a dangerous practice and should be discouraged at all times and at all costs,” said Professor Demetre Labadarios, Head of Human Nutrition at Stellenbosch University.
“Taking four grams of Vitamin C a day can be associated with severe heartburn and diarrhoea and, within the context of HIV, it could end up exacerbating the diarrhoea,” Labadarios pointed out.
He added that the women’s vomiting and dizziness could be from the high doses although it depended on the formulation of the vitamins.
‘They should have safety data on these aspects and I would certainly like to know the safety profile of the products they market in such a susceptible population,’ said Labadarios
He added that little was known about the long-term safety of taking high doses of some of the other ingredients in the tablets such at Green Tea Leaf Extract and Bioflavonoids.
Meanwhile, Peter Saranchuk, a doctor at the local Nolungile Clinic, says ‘Rath, the Rath Foundation and those doing his legwork are causing dangerous, life-threatening confusion to people in the final stages of HIV-infection’.
On May 24, Saranchuk treated the first of three patients who had been on Rath Foundation products.
A 25-year-old woman arrived at the bustling clinic with a serious lung infection ‘incredibly distressed and ill’, said Saranchuk, who works for the humanitarian organisation Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
‘She told me she was upset with the Rath Foundation who she felt had misled her. She said she was made to believe that the vitamins from the Rath Foundation would make her immune to all infections. She was surprised and upset by the fact that she had developed an infection.’
The following day another young woman entered the clinic complaining of abdominal pain and vomiting. She had also been told that she would not get any infections when taking the Rath Foundation vitamins.
The third case involved a regular HIV patient who had been at death’s door when Saranchuk first started treating her in January.
‘She had a CD count of 17 so her immune system was very, very weak at the time. We started her on antiretrovirals, TB treatment and multi-vitamins in February,’ Saranchuk explained.
‘The woman was then admitted to a hospice for good nursing care and good nutritional support,’ said Saranchuk. By May, she was well enough to return to her home but at the end of the month she missed her clinic appointment.
‘She arrived two weeks later and told me her TB home-care worker had referred her to the Rath Foundation’s clinic,’ said Saranchuk.
The patient told him she had been told that the Foundation’s treatment would ‘fight HIV’ and that she had been confused into stopping her antiretrovirals.
The SACP’s Nogcinisa said Rath has been given an opportunity to ‘abuse our people and use them for experimenting with his treatment’.
‘We are now in a situation where the health minister has actually allowed the most vulnerable people to be exploited, the poor and illiterate in our community, for them to abused by all sorts of charlatans, including Dr Rath,’ said Nogcinisa.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has admitted to having a private meeting with Rath in April and has refused to condemn his activities on a number of occasions.
Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) spokesperson Nathan Geffen said the affidavits of Ntsholo and others provided evidence that ‘Rath and his agents are conducting experiments on people’.
‘There is no other reasonable explanation for why photos and blood was taken,’ said Geffen.
In interviews on Cape Town radio stations P4 and 786, Rath admits to running a ‘clinical pilot study’ and ‘doing blood tests’.
The Dr Rath Foundation website states that: ‘In Khayelitsha, a township of Cape Town, South Africa, we conducted a clinical pilot study in HIVpositive (sic) patients with advanced AIDS who had never taken any ARV drugs. The goal of the study was to show that a combination of micronutrients can reverse the course of Aids.’
Meanwhile, MSF spokesperson Marta Darder said the campaign was causing enormous confusion among people with HIV in Khayelitsha. ‘Patients are the subjects of a non-approved and illegal clinical trial,’ said Darder.
She said MSF had grown accustomed to all kinds of groups claiming various cures over the years, but that they had never come across the aggressive tactics used by the Rath Foundation.
‘He is a very smart businessperson and knows how to play on the edge of the law,’ said Darder.
Rath Foundation spokesperson Khaya Buthelezi declined to comment on any of the allegations and said ‘just go ahead without our response’. ‘
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