"A powerful immune booster" proclaims a large advertisement in the window of a downtown pharmacy in Johannesburg, South Africa. The product, called Qina, sells for R120 [US$17] in bottles labelled "clinically proven". HIV and AIDS top the list of diseases it claims to alleviate.
"Not only can Qina prevent someone developing AIDS, but patients with very low CD4 [cell] counts [which measure the strength of the immune system] and high viral loads [of HIV in the bloodstream] benefit almost immediately, with reduced nausea and diarrhoea, increased energy and appetite and immune cell counts that continue to increase over long periods, thus ensuring a normal quality of life is achieved," say flyers available in three local languages and a website.
Chris Vorster, the self-described medical researcher who developed Qina, is convinced he has found an effective, non-toxic treatment for HIV and AIDS. "It works on an electro basis," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "We use four herbal extracts to create a specific frequency that amplifies the body's natural immune response."
Citing studies about the side effects some patients experience on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, Vorster said Qina had no such effects. "I've never advocated that people stop taking ARVs," he said. "But if it was me, I wouldn't touch an ARV if you gave it to me for nothing."
In fact, ARVs are available free of charge in South Africa, but the question of why someone with HIV would spend money on a bottle of Qina instead is not puzzling to Pastor Abel Govendar, secretary of the African Pastors Forum, which represents a network of independent churches.
"I think there is a lack of information on ARVs," said Govendar, who gives Qina to HIV-infected children at an orphanage he helps run in Johannesburg. "You go to rural areas and people don't know what ARVs are; they would go for Qina because it's more visible."
“Not a sound system”
Until the government does more to educate people about ARV treatment, he added, "they mustn't object to other products coming on the market in competition with ARVs."
Vorster's company, Phend Pharmaceuticals, is not a registered pharmaceutical company, nor is it a member of the Health Products Association, an umbrella body for the complementary medicines industry, but he says Qina is registered with the Medicines Control Council (MCC) as a complementary medicine.
Whereas the MCC shut down these sorts of operations in the past, it now appears to be powerless to respond to complaints
The complementary classification exempted him from having to provide scientific evidence of Qina's effectiveness, but he justified the "clinically proven" claim on the bottle by citing clinical trials conducted in Brazil, Argentina and Spain.
"Unfortunately, they don't hold weight in South Africa," he admitted. Other "evidentiary" trials had been conducted with children at Pastor Govendar's orphanage and with the help of two other non-governmental organisations in Johannesburg.
Vorster himself described the process of registering complementary medicines in South Africa as "not a sound system". "We're up against a multitude of products out there that shouldn't be on shelves," he said. "And the man on the street has no idea at all."
Govendar was not concerned about the lack of scientific evidence for Qina's claims. "We've seen results which are positive and that's why we believe in the product."
He recalled an HIV-infected boy at the orphanage who had remained unwell despite being on ARVs. His health had improved dramatically after two months on Qina. "Within three months, we weaned him off the ARVs," said Govendar.
A visit to the orphanage found all the children absent, apparently away spending the school holidays with family members. A poster advertising Qina hung from the front door.
Vorster said his attempts to distribute Qina through clinics had failed, but since they had begun selling it in retail outlets in September last year, about 7,500 people a month were buying it. That figure could soon increase if Govendar's plans to use Qina as a source of income generation for struggling pastors were realised.
"We have a problem in terms of regular financial support, and Qina has come as a win-win situation," he explained. "We [the African Pastors Forum] will get it at a very good rate from the manufacturers, and then they [the pastors] add 10 or 15 percent, so he becomes a distributor in his area and that money goes to supporting him."
Mandisa Hela, the MCC's registrar, said she had never heard of Qina, but the Council's inspectors investigated unsubstantiated claims made by manufacturers.
Nathan Geffen, of the Treatment Action Campaign, an AIDS lobby group, said his organisation had lodged a complaint regarding an untested AIDS remedy eight months ago and the MCC had taken no action.
Director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, Prof Nicoli Nattrass, believes the MCC "has been starved of the resources it needs to function effectively."
She and Geffen are part of an informal coalition of doctors, AIDS activists and academics, who are concerned about what she describes as "the growing number of charlatans and quacks which appear to be operating with impunity."
"Whereas the MCC shut down these sorts of operations in the past, it now appears to be powerless to respond to complaints," she told IRIN/PlusNews.
The coalition plans to expose false claims and lobby government to pass legislation aimed at preventing unethical medicine-marketing practices.
Related article: SOUTH AFRICA: Quackery hinders AIDS treatment efforts
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