Speaking at yesterday’s (Wednesday) plenary session Professor Nceba Gqaleni of the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine said more clinical trials were urgently needed in the quest to bring respect to the field of traditional medicine.
‘More clinical trials that will herald worldwide acceptance of traditional medicine are urgently required,’ he said.
South Africa has been grappling with the role to traditional medicine in the response to the AIDS epidemic while government has lacked the political will to deal with charlatans who claim that their vitamins and other concoctions can cure AIDS.
‘There is a distinction between traditional healers and modern ‘quacks’, Dr Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS told a media gathering in Durban.
‘It is important to involve traditional healers in the HIV response. They can be useful if they are trained, and UNAIDS is involved in their training in places like Uganda.
‘But there is a difference between them and the modern quacks who claim that vitamins can cure AIDS, like the Rath boys and girls.
‘When people make claims of an AIDS cure, we can’t make any compromise. All (substances) must be subjected to the same scientific process to prove that they work.’
Lydia Kaume of the University of Arkansas said research had shown that many HIV positive people were opting for ‘herbal products’ because of the cost of antiretrovirals (ARVs), the side-effects of the drugs and the easy access to herbalists.
‘Many people are desperate for a cure,’ she added.
Kaume’s research found that many of these herbal products were toxic, contaminated and caused adverse reactions when taken with other drugs.
Three herbal concoctions were tested in Nigeria. The products were found to among others contain pathogenic strains of E.coli and other bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics. The concoctions also contained yeasts that caused thrush, a painful condition in people living with HIV/AIDS.
In South Africa 15 herbal samples recommended for people with HIV were also tested. Among others some of the products contained ‘serious diarrhoeal toxins’.
‘We are not saying herbal products are bad, but more research is needed,’ Kaume said.
Bathabile Zungu of the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine in Durban said many of their clients at a clinic in KwaZulu-Natal were opting for herbal preparations because of the delay between diagnosis and actually accessing treatment. ‘People look for quick cures,’ she said.
Zungu said most of the patients, who received intensive counseling at the clinic they attended, took the concoctions in the belief that it would boost their immune system.
‘Also, when the clients are not given ARVs they are too scared to wait for their CD4 counts to drop so they consult other healers. They are also given a promise that they will be cured with no side-effects and that they need not take this product for the rest of their lives,’ Zungu explained.
Zungu said the patients were often desperate which made them easy prey for quick cure claims.