Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Orac of Respectful Insolence is on vacation this week, and in the hiatus is posting some “classic” Insolence from the old blog. In his absence, I feel the need to continue the fight against woo (and also, I happened to receive this story via email—Hat tip Darkman).

The 35-year-old high school teacher named Bheki was lucky to be alive, thanks to the free antiretroviral pills that kept his HIV in check. He felt strong and had no side effects. Life was normal, as normal as it gets with an incurable disease.
Then in February, he ditched the pills and started taking a mystery potion sold here outside Durban. It is made by a former truck driver who says his late grandfather came to him in dreams with the recipe for an herbal drink that could reverse HIV’s march to full-blown AIDS and death. Eager to banish from his body the virus that stalks one in five South African adults, Bheki instead found himself sicker than ever. Three months later, he begged his doctor to put him back on antiretrovirals, only to find that he has built up a resistance that makes the pills less effective.

The makers of the herbal remedy “said I was going to be cured,” said a weak-voiced Bheki, who gave only his first name because of HIV’s powerful stigma. “They’re putting people’s lives in misery.”

Apparently with the blessing of the South African goverment, a dangerous trend of rejecting free anti-retrovirals and taking a “traditional African potion” called uBhejane. This is in response to a deep-rooted suspicion of “white” medicine, and the reliance on unreliable, anecdotal evidence that the tonics work to cure HIV. The maker of uBhejane, who grows the herbs himself, said his dead grandfather came to him in a dream with the secret recipe. (Uh, is he sure it wasn’t for Colonel Sanders 7-Herb and Spices Blend??) This potion is especially dangerous because the staff at the uBhejane clinic tell their “patients” to stop taking anti-retrovirals!

Zeblon Gwala, who makes uBhejane and whose supporters include the mayor of Durban, defends his product. “You talk to the wrong people,” he said when asked about Bheki. “All the results I got, I never find a negative.” Citing confidentiality, he said he could not arrange a meeting with patients who have thrived.

Some physicians believe that traditional medicine can complement Western health practices. But several doctors said they could not put uBhejane in that category because Gwala will not reveal his ingredients. “It could be dishwater,” said Dr. Dennis Sifris, an HIV specialist in Johannesburg. “We have no idea what’s in it. It’s magic. It’s hocus-pocus.”

As Orac would say……..woo.

Critics of Tshabalala-Msimang, the health minister, have long claimed that she overstates the side effects of antiretrovials and the benefits of garlic, olive oil and other nutritional supplements. They have denounced her for voicing support for Matthias Rath, a German vitamin seller who calls ARVs “poison.” At last week’s Toronto AIDS conference, members of the Treatment Action Campaign vandalized the country’s booth, with its display of garlic, lemon and beetroot, and chanted “Fire Mantow now,” according to news reports

All this is just further evidence that fighting the battle against AIDS in Africa is a double fight: one against the disease itself, the other against the stigma of the diseased.


  1. #1 Robster
    August 23, 2006

    Is snakeoil an ingredient?

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