Minister’s Dr Herb takes over from Dr Beetroot

2009-08-14 00:00

SICELO Shiceka this week stuck to his controversial statements thatherbs have an important role to play in “bringing down the viral load in HIV/Aids”.

Still recovering from an era of Aids denialism and quackery under former health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and former president Thabo Mbeki, South Africans read in a weekend newspaper that the minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs believes that herbs “surpass antiretrovirals because your body gets used to them” and “arrest the spread of the viral load”.

Offered an opportunity to explain his comments, Shiceka’s spokesperson Vuyelwa Vika this week sent an e-mail response to a set of questions.

“The minister believes [that] there is enough space for both herbs and antiretrovirals within the health management environment in our country. His statement to the journalist was that since we live in a democracy where people have a choice, people should have choices even in terms of their health and wellness, and the kind of medical treatment they choose for various illnesses and conditions, including living with HIV/Aids.

“He said he knows of people who have used herbs and who have reported a marked decline in their viral load. He also said that because we live in Africa and Africans use herbs and other forms of indigenous knowledge systems, they should not be embarrassed and use these secretly because it is a choice they have, but the one thing that the system of indigenous medicine needs to be rid of is charlatans who can take advantage of our people.

“However, the presence of charlatans does not take away from the fact that for some in society, traditional herbs and ways of medicine do work and have been proven scientifically to work,” Vika said.

Asked to share the evidence on which the minister has based his claims, Vika said that he had witnessed it in his community and among family and friends. She said that he was unable to name the specific herbs to which he was referring as he is not a herbalist, but urged the journalist to “do your research and go to herbalists in the country”.

“Rather than this being turned into an either/or situation, the minister believes that it is primarily a health management issue and there can never be a one-size-fits- all” issue.

Vika also confirmed that the minister knows of instances where “more than just one person living with HIV arrested or contained the increase of the viral load in their body after using herbal medication — meaning that instead of spreading or increasing, the viral load stabilised and after some time actually went down”.

In the weekend report Shiceka states that he is planning to meet with the Department of Health with the aim of making traditional medicine available in every health facility.

Vika said that Shiceka is planning to bring together traditional healers and the Department of Health to explore means of mainstreaming alternative African indigenous health and medicinal systems and getting rid of charlatans through legislation — “to the extent of making these ways of healing and preventative medicine accessible in hospitals and clinics, without demonising them and making African people feel ashamed of their ways of doing things”.

Vika said the minister’s thinking is in line with Eastern societies, “including the example of Chinese herbal remedies, which are not a source of shame to the Chinese and which have actually gained the respect of the rest of the world.

There cannot be a one method fits all in health management, so ARVs can coexist with African indigenous ways of herbal medication.”

Asked whether the minister supported ARVs as part of the various tools in the fight against HIV/Aids, Vika agreed that they are acceptable as an “alternative for those who prefer them, because people have a democratic right to choose what works for them — for some it is ARVs, for others it is herbs.

“This is the democracy the minister­ sacrificed his youth to see unfolding in South Africa so that everyone can exercise some of these fundamental choices.”

Mark Heywood of the Aids Law Project said that Shiceka’s comments were worrying and disappointing.

“Comments such as these set the country back to an era that we thought we had moved from. We hope that the minister can retract his statement and that the Department of Health can take a stand against it,” he said.

Nathan Geffen of the Treatment Action Campaign said it is not the state’s role to say that people have choices in how they treat HIV/Aids.

“Obviously people have choices. The state’s role is to inform people about the choices they have that will save lives on the basis of scientific evidence.

“There is no evidence that any intervention other than antiretroviral medicines suppress the HIV viral load. It is this message that all representatives of the state should be conveying,” said Geffen.

— Health-e News.

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