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04/19/2005

South Africa Pushes the Envelope on HIV Weirdness

The response to the AIDS crisis in South Africa has long been characterized by its sheer weirdness. In 2000, South African president Thabo Mbeki famously placed himself firmly on the side of AIDS dissidents, i.e. a group of scientists who question the assumptions that HIV causes AIDS and that anti-retroviral drugs are sufficiently safe and effective. No, the dissidents claimed: HIV is really a harmless antiretrovirus that people who develop AIDS just happen to have (a lot), and AIDS drugs such as AZT are not only toxic but actually cause AIDS.

Of course, Mbeki is not the first president to have dangerously wacky scientific views. It was Ronald Reagan who in 1980 said approximately 80% of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation in order to argue for lax emission standards. But you could see at least what Reagans wonky science was doing for him (and the car industry). With Mbeki, you seemed to have weirdness for its own sake. Many could see the dangers of his public stance, but few could see the point, if there was one.

President Mbeki no longer talks like this, at least in public. But his prudence has not made public discourse about AIDS in South Africa any less bizarre. This week finds the South Africa Minister of Health Care, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, lending her support to Dr. Matthias Rath, of the Rath Foundation. (http://allafrica.com/stories/200504180835.html) Dr. Rath produces brochures claiming that anti-retrovirals are poisonous, and that they are prescribed to AIDS patients not because they work, but simply to further the sinister interests of a global pharmaceutical cartel. However, effective and safe alternatives to prevent and treat AIDS are at hand: very special vitamins and micronutrients produced by the Rath Foundation.

Interestingly, Dr. Raths supervitamins are more expensive than anti-retrovirals. And why shouldnt they be? According to the website, they apparently help with cancer too. And diabetes. And cardiovascular disease. And heart failure, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, tinnitus and periodontosis. And yes, the doctor has misspelled periodontitis, but Im sure if periodontosis ever shows up, the vitamins will work for that too.

And it gets better, or worse, depending on your moral and aesthetic tastes. Dr. Rath has set up shop in three impoverished townships of Cape Town, where his clinics dispense vitamins to HIV positive patients, apparently touting them as a replacement of (rather than a supplement to) anti-retroviral treatment. His clinics also allegedly run some interesting impromptu studies on HIV patients too, involving behavioral questionnaires, blood tests without informed consent, and compulsory photography of patients wearing only their panties.

Funny ha ha or funny peculiar? Ultimately neither: the epidemic is bad enough without being aggravated by quacks squeezing money from the poor.
-Stuart Rennie

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