This is an extract from the book "Debunking Delusions: The inside story of the Treatment Action Campaign" by Nathan Geffen.
As I strolled down St George’s Mall, the main pedestrian walkway in Cape Town, I was handed a pamphlet that advertised a ‘unique natural complementary medicine’ to ‘inactivate and remove’ HIV ‘from the body’.
I had collected many similar pamphlets before. One advertised that a ‘Lady Doctor’ Fazira and Alibawa had a ‘a very strong treatment for Aids’. Another, from a Dr Araphat, claimed more or less the same.
But this one had such an alluring name that I had to find out more. It was called Ozone Rectal Therapy. So I could not resist an invitation to accompany a television crew to their interview with the seller of this unique remedy.
The crew had been commissioned by a media organisation called Health-e to do an exposé of Aids quackery. I have been interested, actually obsessed, for nearly a decade in debunking quack remedies for Aids as part of my work with the TAC.
We were greeted by a Mr Vlok, a white-haired, bespectacled gentleman in a grey suit. His company is called NCM-O3, which stands for ‘Natural Complementary Medicine with Ozone’. His dingy office walls were covered with pamphlets promoting ozone as a treatment for Aids.
How is ozone administered? Well, the name of the product says it all, by suppository up the rectum. It is best done at night according to Vlok.
He explained to us, somewhat incoherently and in a hushed tone, how Mark Shuttleworth – one of South Africa’s richest people and the first African in space – conducted an experiment in space which achieved the great breakthrough in ozone treatment. Shuttleworth, no doubt, would be most intrigued to learn that he has been part of such an auspicious medical discovery. Vlok also drew a fantastical picture of how ozone kills HIV. He explained to us that, unlike ARVs, ozone gets into the body’s HIV infected cells.
The interviewer, Anna-Maria Lombard, asked him how ozone, which according to Vlok kills not only HIV but cancerous cells and many other viruses and germs, knew how to differentiate between healthy cells, viruses and germs. ‘The infected cells have a marker on them,’ he answered, as if it was obvious. Like a bullseye, I imagined. Vlok said that he tests for HIV on his premises (which, incidentally, is in breach of the National Health Act). He even showed us the test he uses. When people test positive, he reassures them that it is okay and that they won’t die.
His whole three-month package cost R2,000 to R4,000. He told us this was much cheaper than ARVs. But actually this is nearly double the price of ARVs in the private sector for three months’ supply. And ARVs have actually been shown to work. Vlok kept on stressing how he had worked in a hospital. Eventually Lombard asked what he did there. He answered sheepishly in Afrikaans, ‘I was a clerk.’
I did some research on the Internet into ozone therapy. A whole gamut of people offer it as a treatment for many diseases, including Aids.
Vlok is not the first person to come up with this idea. Even his method of administering it is not unique. Ozone has in fact been tested as a treatment for Aids. I was surprised by this. In most of my encounters with quacks, they have sold products which have never been tested in properly controlled clinical trials. Perhaps this gives them sufficient leeway to market their products using anecdotes or their own badly conducted and often illegal clinical trials which they have dressed up in scientific jargon.
In the early 1990s, long before HIV had become the chronic manageable disease that it is today and when the search for treatments was desperate, a Canadian research team injected ozone into patients with HIV. They did this for eight weeks and then observed them for a month.
The ozone treated patients did no better on any relevant measurement than a group that did not receive the treatment. This means that ozone is unlikely to work against HIV. Admittedly, the Canadians used injections, not enemas, but I cannot see how the latter are likely to be an improvement.
Sometimes quack advertising is more subtle than Vlok’s and Aids is mentioned euphemistically or in a way that only the advertisers’
target market will understand. I have a pamphlet that I obtained in Cape Town’s largest township, Khayelitsha, home to the city’s highest concentration of people with HIV. This one says it treats umbulalazwe, the Xhosa word for Aids. Right outside Khayelitsha’s main shopping centre is a billboard with a large photo of the beautiful actress Joyce Skefu from the popular soapie Generations. She’s holding a bottle of Aloe4U, extra strength, which claims to boost the immune system naturally.
Not far from the City Hall in the centre of Cape Town there’s Diskom, a departmental chain store aimed at low-income shoppers. I went shopping there with the Health-e crew and bought Ingwe Booster, Impilo Gold, Impilo Sutherlandia, Impilo African Potato extract, Spiraforce’s Alo Vera and quite a few others. I could have bought many more, but after years of receiving an NGO salary, R250 was my limit.
They all claimed to boost your immune system, which in South Africa is often a coded way of saying they treat Aids. These products were not hiding in an obscure dusty corner of the shop. The immune-boosting section is large, conspicuous and near the cash tills. Diskom is not the only shop selling these remedies. You can also find similar products with similar claims in other large chains.
E-tv ran the Health-e documentary on the popular muck-raking programme 3rd Degree. At the end of the show, the presenter, Debora Patta, said that Diskom had agreed to remove these products. I went back to Diskom a few weeks later and then a few months later. Exactly the same remedies were on sale on exactly the same shelves.
Far more cavalier with the products they sell than any of these chains is your local chemist. We would like to see pharmacies as reliable purveyors of proven medicines. They are not.
My local chemist has a big window advertisement selling Secomet, which allegedly treats a whole range of symptoms remarkably similar to those of Aids. In fact the manufacturer has made claims on its website that Secomet treats Aids. The company worked with Girish Kotwal, who used to be a professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT), to promote the product. Kotwal conducted dodgy experiments on university property with Secomet, which caused a small scandal. So the university reached a polite arrangement with him and he departed. In my capacity as TAC’s policy director I lodged a complaint against Secomet with the Department of Health’s Law Enforcement Unit (LEU) in November 2006.
Nothing consequential came of it during the time that Tshabalala-Msimang served as Health Minister. Over two years later, and only after Barbara Hogan became Health Minister, one of the LEU’s inspectors tried to stop Secomet, but the unit was hopelessly underfunded and understaffed and the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to take action against the company.
Not only giggles and gags
The reach of quackery goes beyond marketing to predominantly working-class people; it also goes beyond race. Middle-class South Africa, white and black, indulges in quackery on a large scale. The ubiquity of quackery in South Africa is, as I explain in this book, a direct consequence of bad state policies and support for it by the country’s leaders.
Unfortunately quackery is not just an absurd collection of giggles and gags. The Health-e investigation uncovered the fact that most of the scams – the ones with the exotic names, that is – are connected. The pamphlets are recycled with slightly different text and the names of the ‘doctors’ are changed. This is why you can read in one pamphlet that Professor Shafiq and Maama Zayna have a ‘new steaming method (Biocell Herb Method)’ and on another that Dr Mama Fatumo and Kibo have a ‘new steaming method (Biocell Herb Method)’.
Many operate in the same buildings, and they simply get up and leave if they suspect the police are on to them. Health-e interviewed a man called Kingsley (presumably a pseudonym) who claimed he had been to one of these healers to rid his house of evil spirits and parted with hundreds of thousands of rands. So he laid a charge of fraud. I cannot help wondering if he is very gullible or a teller of tall tales.
And here is a decidedly unfunny story. Andile Madondile went to see traditional healers in the Free State and Cape Town. But his illness just got worse. His body was wasted and covered with blisters. So Andile tied a noose in a rope. He hung the rope from the roof of his shack. He placed a chair under the rope. He stood on the chair, put the noose of the rope around his neck, removed its slack, kicked the chair away, dropped and dangled.
Andile was born in Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg. It is one of the world’s largest hospitals. It admits 150,000 patients and treats 500,000 outpatients a year. When Andile was born, on Christmas Day 1978 according to his mother, none of Baragwanath’s patients had HIV; today it treats more people with HIV than any other health facility on the planet.
Twenty-six years later, Andile tried to kill himself because he had Aids. As he swung from the rope, dizzy and gasping for breath, his three-year-old daughter, Elihle, walked into the room and screamed.
(Health24, March 2010)
Order the book here.