Quackery is big business in SA

2008-11-28 00:00

“Bring me people sick with Aids who can’t walk,” urges the poster stuck on to Durban bus shelters, with a cellphone number attached. The number leads to a man calling himself “Dr Mama Grace”, who operates from a building on Grey Street in downtown Durban.

When Faith*, a woman living with HIV, consults him at Health-e’s request, he says he will “cure” her of Aids within six months — at a cost of R14 500. He gives her his bank account details and says he will start the treatment as soon as the money has been deposited.

On street corners in the major cities — Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg — little pamphlets are handed out advertising “doctors” who can sort out every problem from “lost property and lost lovers” to erectile and financial problems, HIV/Aids and diabetes. One even urges: “Give me your penis for the weekend and I will make it work”. Another, “Dr Abdul”, calls himself a “penis expert” and offers a “new steaming method”.

Downtown Durban is also full of posters offering “safe abortions” — again with no address, just cellphone numbers.

Those answering the phone refuse to give their address, instead offering to meet outside shops in town on either Smith or West streets. When asked if the procedure takes place in a clinic with medical care, one operator says: “Don’t worry. It’s just pills.”

A duo of “traditional doctors” calling themselves “Prof Fahad and Dr Maama Fatimah from Central Africa” admit that they also offer abortions for around R400 a time.

The so-called doctors were also happy to conduct abortions for pregnancies of over 20 weeks, which is illegal. Terminations are conducted up to 12 weeks and abortions only up to 20 weeks under extreme circumstances.

In Cape Town, Health-e’s investigation takes us to a building off Plein Street — a short walk from Parliament, which is the headquarters of another group of “Dr Mamas”, who refuse to talk to us.

But John*, a man who works in the building and has spoken to countless clients trying to get their money back, says the bogus doctors are notorious for making off with large sums of people’s money.

“He will say you must pay, say R4 000 for your problem to be fixed,” says John. “But when you come back again or call him, he will tell you that he is not in the office, he is somewhere else and if your problem didn’t go well, you have to pay more money.

“So they want you to run away and if you still want them to help you, you pay that other amount he is asking for … because he knows that if you are desperate you will keep on paying and he knows that he has scammed you already.”

Kingsley* was one of the desperate ones. Although he has laid a case of fraud against the bogus doctors, it is unlikely that he will recover the R214 000 he has given to “Dr Mama” to rid his house of evil spirits and his bad dreams. “I trusted them because they were Africans like me. On their advertising board they had explained they are from East Africa and that they help people,” he says.

But as John predicted, Kingsley’s money was never enough. They told him that his problem was particularly difficult and that they would need a number of special ingredients, including lion’s blood.

“Me and my wife discussed this and decided to take R70 000 from my bond. I gave them the money,” says Kingsley. “He then came back to me and told me that the lion blood cost has now gone up to R14 000 a litre, which meant that they now needed R98 000. I then went back to the bond, took out another R28 000 and gave it to him.”

E-mails sent to the “Dr Mamas” in Cape Town elicited immediate responses and several follow-up calls to check when the prospective client would be paying them a visit.

Dr Musa told Health-e in an e-mail: “You will have to stop the ARVs as soon as u start to take my medicine, am going to send u a 2 litre bottle, where by u will take 2 big spoons in the morning, 2 after noon en 2 at night. all will be 6 spoons per day [sic]. Yes! it will fight the Human Immune Virus and after a short period, the virus will be gone. It is going to cost u 1 200 rands.”

Treatment Action Campaign leader Nathan Geffen said quacks were “allowed to operate freely under Thabo Mbeki and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang because they supported quack cures such as Virodene, touted as a cure for Aids”.

The Health Department failed to respond to requests to explain how these quacks are still allowed to operate. — Health-e news.

* Names changed.

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