‘There is total disregard for the well being and safety of our people [in Khayelitsha] who are being used as guinea pigs,’ declared Smuts Ngonyama, head of the presidency in the ANC.
But no, Ngonyama was not speaking about the activities of the Rath Foundation, which has been undermining government’s HIV/AIDS treatment programme by encouraging HIV positive people in Khayelitsha and Gugulethu to abandon ‘toxic’ antiretroviral (ARV) drugs in favour of high doses of its vitamins.
Instead, he was condemning the decision by the Western Cape government to ‘pilot the provision of [antiretroviral] drugs to black communities of Khayelitsha’ on 23 October 2000.
Five years later almost to the day, Khayelitsha is again the battleground over AIDS treatment. There is mounting evidence that the Rath Foundation, headed by German vitamin seller Dr Matthias Rath, is using HIV positive people as ‘guinea pigs’ in an illegal ‘clinical pilot study’ of his vitamins, which he claims can ‘reverse AIDS’.
Yet the ANC ‘ an organisation set up to serve the people of this country ‘ has been strangely silent about Rath’s activities.
Locally, ANC councillors have been brawling with one another ahead of nominations or local elections. Provincially, Western Cape ANC chairperson and Parliament’s health portfolio committee chairperson, James Ngculu, has consistently ignored attempts by Health-e to get his comment on the Rath Foundation.
The only senior party official to condemn Rath, ANC National Health secretary, Dr Saadiq Kariem, did so in his personal capacity.
Khayelitsha SA Communist Party (SACP) District secretary Luthando Nogcinisa believes that the problem comes from the top: ‘The ANC comrades in Khayelitsha, I can say with conviction, are supporting us. In fact, they privately have condemned the Dr Rath Foundation and its operations in Khayelitsha. However, what has hamstrung them is the position of the Health Minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.’
Tshabalala-Msimang and her Director General Thami Mseleku have both given their tacit support to the foundation.
‘I will only distance myself from Dr Rath if it can be demonstrated that the vitamin supplements that he is prescribing are poisonous for people infected with HIV,” said Tshabalala-Msimang recently in a written reply to a parliamentary question by the Democratic Alliance.
Recently, two AIDS denialists working with the Rath Foundation, Professor Sam Mhlongo and Dr David Rasnick, were invited to address the country’s highest decision-making body on health, the National Health Council.
Mhlongo is head of the Rath Foundation’s ‘clinical pilot study’ in Khayelitsha and led a failed attempt to get his institution, University of Limpopo’s Medunsa campus, to give ethical approval for the study.
In a scene reminiscent of the Virodene episode ‘ when scientists touting an industrial solvent as a cure for AIDS were allowed to address Cabinet ‘ the Rath officials were given an unprecedented 90 minutes to address Health MECs and provincial heads of health.
In a press report afterwards, Rasnick said he told the council that ARVs were ‘toxic and ineffective’, effectively trashing a key component of Government’s treatment plan for people with AIDS.
Curiously, the Rath Foundation was given privileged access to the council despite the fact that it has been under investigation by the Medicines Control Council (MCC) since April.
But the MCC investigation, which is being handled by the health department’s law enforcement directorate, doesn’t seem to have got very far. The original investigator in the case, Lionel Snyman, was removed some months back. A few weeks ago, the MCC’s Humphrey Zokufa appealed on radio for people to come forward and provide it with the addresses of where the Rath ‘clinical trials’ were taking place.
In a statement that appears to pre-empt the MCC’s investigation, Director General Mseleku said recently: ‘There have been allegations that Dr Rath was actually using medicine that was not registered in South Africa. And the law enforcement agency says, in accordance with what was pronounced by the Department of Health before about the complementarity of Dr Rath’s vitamins, there hasn’t been anything that was done wrong with regard to that.’
When we questioned the Minister’s close relationship with Rath in an article in April, Tshabalala-Msimang responded: ‘We cannot transplant models designed for scientific validation of allopathic medicine and apply it to other remedies. There is need for creativity to come up with relevant and pragmatic models to prove safety, quality and efficacy of complementary, alternative and African traditional medicines.’
Thus, both the Minister and Director General have opted to define Rath’s pills as ‘complementary’, a grey area in the law designed mainly to accommodate traditional healers and homeopaths.
But Rath does not see his ‘cellular medicine’ pills as a complementary treatment but as a cure. He promotes the self-same pills in the US and Europe as being able to combat heart disease and cancer, while in this country he claims they can ‘reverse the symptoms of AIDS’.
Rath’s claims have been widely discredited internationally. But in South Africa he has been able to set up a sophisticated network to popularise his vitamins and bash ARVs with the help of a range of the SA National Civic Organisation (Sanco).
The SACP’s Nogcinisa says: ‘I feel that Dr Rath understood it very well that there is that tension between the Treatment Action Campaign and the government, so he started by attacking the TAC in the community and using Sanco to gain legitimacy.’
Areas where the foundation wants to work are first flooded with posters and pamphlets describing ARVs as ‘toxic’ and giving the impression that the TAC, not government, is behind their distribution. Then Sanco members contact people known to be HIV positive and encourage them to drop ARVs in favour of Rath vitamins.
Some HIV positive recruits have also been told to take excessive doses of the pills ‘ up to 20 a day containing over 60 times the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C.
By law, if a manufacturer claims that its product can cure, that product needs to be registered as a medicine and has to be approved by the MCC which would need scientific proof that these claims are valid.
Yet government has done nothing about Rath’s illegal activities, and this inactivity has caused confusion and concern.
Says Cosatu Khayelitsha Local chairperson Monde Nqulwana: ‘If I decided to come tomorrow and say that I’m a practitioner, I can cure HIV, and the government will let me go as I please and do whatever I want to do among our people, that will be killing the nation itself.’
The TAC has already sued the Rath Foundation for defamation after it repeatedly calling the TAC a front for the pharmaceutical industry. The case was concluded in July but judgement has not yet been given.
Last month, almost 200 Western Cape healthworkers sent a petition to MEC Pierre Uys urging him to prevent the Rath Foundation from undermining AIDS treatment. Uys described the petition as ‘regrettable’ and said that the matter was in the hands of the MCC.
A few days later, Wits University issued a statement voicing concern about the fact that the foundation’s ‘trial’ did not have the necessary ethical approval. Medunsa has refused the Rath Foundation ethical approval for its “Clinical pilot study in immuno-compromised patients including HIV positive individuals with Dr Rath Cellular Programme” after raising 34 problems with the protocol.
Internationally, Rath’s claims have been widely condemned including by the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and Harvard University.
But still the ANC remains silent ‘ despite the fact that Rath Foundation is undermining the ARV component of government’s HIV/AIDS treatment programme and the poor and the sick are bearing the brunt of this.
Is it a case of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, whereby the foundation is seen as being useful for its campaign against the TAC? Is it because Rath has played into key officials’ antipathy towards ARVs? Or is it simply that party officials see the lives of the poor as being unimportant as they devote themselves to the pursuit of power?
Without direction from the ANC, we will never know.
E-mail Kerry Cullinan