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KHOPOTSO: It took Lynne Moeng, Director of the Nutrition unit in the national Department of Health less than a minute to assess Vita Cell, the main supplements in the range that Dr Matthias Rath markets to the South African HIV positive population. First, she found fault with the labelling of the container.

LYNNE MOENG: Most vitamins would actually indicate the amount of nutrients, as it says here, ‘€œVitamin C, so much.’€ It should be indicating that it’€™s a certain percentage of the Recommended Daily Allowances. And this does not say that. As a result, one can’€™t tell immediately by just looking, whether this is the recommended daily allowances or it’€™s more than the recommended daily allowance.

KHOPOTSO: Moeng explains what the term ‘€œRecommended Daily Allowances’€ means.

LYNNE MOENG: Basically, it’€™s the amounts that you can use safely without adverse effects. And you need to have an idea of how much you are taking ‘€“ whether it’€™s 10% (or) 20%, so that if you eat other foods or supplements you know more or less how much you have augmented.

KHOPOTSO: So, really, the trace elements and vitamins that are indicated here on this container, that for instance, there is Vitamin C 200 mg, trace element Zinc 5 mg, doesn’€™t really say much about these tablets?

LYNNE MOENG: It actually doesn’€™t’€¦ It’€™s not information you can have at hand even as a Nutrition person. But it’€™s worse for the public. It actually means nothing.

KHOPOTSO: The label on the Dr Rath multi-vitamin pills, in part, reads that ‘€œthis nutrient combination is labelled as a food supplement according to the Foodstuff Act No 54 of 1972’€. However, Moeng remains confused.

LYNNE MOENG: If this was a foodstuff it would specify the nutrients that it has in milligrams or whatever unit. It would say if you take one tablet it contains so much nutrients’€¦ Then, at times it would say one tablet for this age group, two tablets for this age group, and these are the RDAs you get from each. That’€™s how it would be labelled, clearly. Unfortunately, this doesn’€™t have that.

Looking at these, I’€™m not sure whether they are still at a food level or medicine level. Then, it means they would have to be referred to a different department that deals with regulating medicines. I wouldn’€™t be able to tell you because I don’€™t have the levels. I don’€™t know exactly, whether they are above 10 times the RDAs or five times the RDAs.

KHOPOTSO: The Medicines Control Council, the body that must provide answers to that and which is investigating Rath’€™s activities, ignored requests for comment on this story.

Moeng also pointed out that the labelling on multi-vitamins should also specify the recommended dosages for different age categories, a vital factor which Dr Rath neglected to pay attention to in his packaging.

LYNNE MOENG: It says ‘€œsuggested use is 1 ‘€“ 3 tablets daily’€. It doesn’€™t state for what age group. So, that alone is a problem and is open to abuse if you don’€™t have those facts at hand with you. That’€™s a major concern because most multi-vitamin containers will state the age group, from 4 ‘€“ 6 years or 6 ‘€“ 12 years, adults, females. This doesn’€™t say anything’€¦And, I think it’€™s a very misleading kind of label.              

KHOPOTSO: Relatives of two deceased people in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, who had HIV and subsequently took Rath’€™s pills after his agents had told them that they would ‘€œfight off’€ the infection report that their loved ones had been instructed to take up to 20 pills a day. The pills contain a host of vitamins, minerals, trace elements and other lesser known nutrients. Among the vitamins is Vitamin C, which has dangerous consequences if consumed in large doses.

LYNNE MOENG: You would be nauseous (and) vomit. And for a person who is already immuno compromised that would immediately deteriorate one’€™s condition’€¦ It means you are losing more nutrients. You are not taking anything in as well. And we are not sure what these are doing to the gut itself’€¦ With Vitamin A it can actually inhibit your liver function. So, it’€™s important that there’€™s regulation as to the amount of vitamins you take. Unfortunately with tablets written ‘€œ1 ‘€“ 3’€ and you hear that sometimes people take up to 10 you don’€™t know what can happen to those individuals who are taking excess vitamins. It should not be encouraged.

KHOPOTSO: Another concern is that the container doesn’€™t come with an information leaflet packed inside as is standard with vitamin tablets.

LYNNE MOENG: In some circumstances you’€™ll find that the labelling itself outside doesn’€™t state everything because there’€™s such little space. But at least, you get a leaflet inside. The leaflets will also tell you side-effects if you take excessive doses. This one doesn’€™t give any guidance. And, I think, because people want to get well they will take any amount so that they can get well quicker. And that’€™s very risky.      

KHOPOTSO: The pills also contain a substance known as ‘€œacetylcysteine’€.

When asked about this, Moeng couldn’€™t comment as it’€™s a substance she never comes across in Nutrition. We have since learnt that acetylcysteine is a scheduled medicinal item, which can mean that Rath’€™s pills should be registered as medicine. Furthermore, the pills marketed as a tool to ‘€œfight off’€ HIV are very similar in shape and colour as an antiretroviral medicine known as Efavirenz.

LYNNE MOENG: Remember, marketing people market products to confuse consumers’€¦ If this person is targeting a specific group of people, maybe who are HIV positive, it could be that the message is saying ‘€œwhat you are taking is not different from this.’€ I don’€™t know. But it could be. And it could be easily confusing or misleading’€¦ You are trying to say to them ‘€œit has the same benefits, why not take one instead of the other?’€

KHOPOTSO: While the Department of Health’€™s Nutrition expert took less than a minute to assess the Rath pills, the Medicines Control Council has been investigating the activities of the Dr Rath Health Foundation in South Africa for nearly four months. The MCC has refused to comment on the findings, so far.                

E-mail Khopotso Bodibe