An unsubstantiated but well-publicised claim by The Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh that he can cure AIDS risks setting back efforts to stop the virus from spreading in the tiny West Africa nation and the region, campaigners warn.
Speaking to an audience of hospital workers, AIDS activists, and diplomats in mid-January, Jammeh announced that he had "perfected a treatment for the AIDS virus" using herbs.
Patients would be cured within days, he promised.
Gambia's Minister of Health, Tamsir Mbowe has confirmed that the first 10 reportedly HIV-infected patients began receiving the treatment at the end of January.
His department has released several statements saying that the health of patients has improved, that their immune systems are stronger and that in some patients, the virus was no longer detectable.
Patients purportedly healed have appeared regularly on state-run television.
The cure's secret ingredients according to Mbowe are Jammeh's "family knowledge of traditional medicine" and "the teachings of the holy Koran."
Sceptics at home
Jammeh's claim has won admiration from some. "A man in his position of authority wouldn’t pretend to treat something that he can’t treat," said Ousmane Sanusey, a school teacher in Banjul.
But for Sam Sarr, editor-in-chief of the Foroyaa newspaper in Banjul, the claim is dangerous until it is substantiated.
"A lot of people are sceptical, they have doubts, especially in urban areas," Sarr said. "In a society where a lot of people are fetishists, their lack of knowledge leads them to believe that the president used supernatural powers to find a cure."
An editorial in Foroyaa warned that Jammeh's claim could be a threat to the fight against AIDS in The Gambia, where the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is estimated at 2.1 percent.
It could also set back campaigns to raise awareness that are funded by the World Bank and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Domestic criticism muted
Sarr is one of only a handful of prominent Gambians willing to publicly question the president's cure.
Since Jammeh came to power in 1993, human rights groups say that freedom of expression has been increasingly stifled in the tiny West African country, and criticisms of the president are rare.
Asked to give a medical evaluation of the cure, a Gambian doctor refused saying: "In the current political climate, I could lose my business." The doctor requested anonymity and refused to publicly or privately denounce the claim.
For Demba Ali Jawo, former president of the Gambia Press Union, the international community's response is key.
"It is extremely necessary for the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the international community to come to the rescue of the Gambian AIDS patients, who may be given false hopes and made to believe that they had been cured of the infection while they are not," he said in an interview with a local newspaper WHEN.
International community silent
The international community is waiting for proof before it makes a judgement on Jammeh's cure.
"We are working on a coordinated response by the UN system," an official with the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said, adding that UNAIDS hoped to release a statement in the coming days.
An expert with WHO noted that international organisations were having difficulty obtaining relevant information from Gambian authorities. "We have asked to visit the laboratory to see how the treatment works but have had no response from the department of health," the official, who asked to speak anonymously said.
"We also asked the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) to provide us with a copy of the broadcast of the treatment being administered to patients but have received no response," said the WHO official.
But regional NGOs have shown less reticence. "His claim is of a divine nature and does not have any scientific basis, so it cannot be taken seriously," said Bede Eziefule, executive director at the Centre for Right to Health in Nigeria.
Ibrahim Umoro, a peer educator working for an international NGO in Nigeria said the claim is an "insult to the medical profession" and an "insult to Africans".
"The Gambian President and his Minister should not be allowed to spread their ignorance to compound the problem that has defied a solution for so long," Umoro said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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