The authorities in Swaziland are doing little to stem a flood of bogus ”miracle Aids cures” in a country with one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates.
”In a blink of an eye, it seems, Swazis have gone from deep denial of the existence of Aids to panic as they realise all the people they are burying are not dying of witchcraft. The plethora of Aids ‘cures’ is a product of that,” said Aids activist Thembi Dlamini.
According to press reports, the supplier of one ”Aids vaccine” in pill form, manufactured in Thailand, is providing the Swazi army with the drug, although there is no proof of its efficacy.
Neither the army nor the drug’s distributor, Sutitangwe Medical Services of Mbabane, owned by two Thai nationals and a Swazi, would comment when Irin contacted them.
For R500, which is more than the monthly take-home pay of an average Swazi worker in industry and agriculture, a packet of 30 ”HIV vaccine pills” will purportedly protect a body’s immune system from viral infections for one month. One pill, called an V1 Immunitor, is taken orally daily.
Ngwebendze Nhlabatsi, one of the drug’s promoters, said in a statement: ”Nobody in the Ministry of Health is qualified to comment for or against this pill. Neither the minister, the principal secretary nor the chief pharmacist is qualified. In fact, nobody in the country is qualified to comment.”
Nhlabatsi’s defiant stance underscored the lack of pharmaceutical regulation in Swaziland. Police conduct regular raids against illegal narcotics, arresting possessors of marijuana and other drugs, and burning marijuana fields. However, laws governing medicinal drugs are either obsolete or not enforced.
”In the absence of a competent national medical system, it is as if the authorities want people to find their own ‘cures’ through quack remedies,” said Angelina Magongo, a nurse at a clinic in the capital, Mbabane.
Only if individuals are poisoned by a ”medicine” will the authorities take action.
But this is done at the local level, through city and municipal health inspectors who usually regulate the cleanliness of restaurants and abattoirs. The Ministry of Health follows a laissez-faire policy toward so-called medicines sold both through an informal sector network of sidewalk vendors and unlicensed medicine dealers and at legitimate and licensed establishments.
As a result, one fad ”cure” after another has begun to appear.
”I use herbs from Asia. I started in January. They are expensive. I choose between them and new clothes. But I know they are helping me,” said Janice Simelane, a receptionist in the commercial city of Manzini who, like most Swazis, will not publically admit she is HIV-positive.
Last month, UNAids reported that Swaziland had now tied with Botswana in having the world’s worst rate of infection among adults — about 40% of the population.
The Swazi press has uncritically hailed the arrival of each new Aids ”cure”, focusing on the popularity of the fad drugs without questioning their effectiveness.
A front-page story in the Times of Swaziland heralded the appearance of the V1 Immunitor: ”All the way from Thailand, a new wonder drug marketed as an Aids vaccine has hit the local market with a bang!”
The head of the Education Ministry’s exams council, Dr Ben Dlamini, writes a weekly column in the Swazi Observer newspaper announcing HIV vaccines and Aids cures, none of which have been proved legitimate.
This week, Dlamini, who is considered a national intellectual, wrote how marijuana can cure Aids. He told Swazis that Britain has a R1-billion business providing cannabis-based pain killers to hospitals, and tests are now under way to use the medicine to beat Aids and cancer.
”There is no question that these tests will be confirmed, because England’s neighbour, The Netherlands, has already approved the use of cannabis capsules for curing cancer and Aids,” he wrote.
From May through September this year, evangelical preachers from the United States and Africa held mass ”healing” sessions that were attended by tens of thousands of Swazis. Advertisements for the events promised Aids cures.
Meanwhile, it is still culturally taboo to admit one’s HIV-positive status. Psychiatrists say the strain of secrecy adds to stress caused by the medical condition.
”People can snap, and become irrational. They grasp at anything that offers hope,” said Dr Thandie Malepe, director of the National Psychiatric Centre.
A private medical practitioner in Manzini, who preferred not to have his name used, said the problem is that Swaziland has no drug-testing facility to verify the safety and efficacy of medicines.
Ironically, it was the lack of such a facility that former health minister Dr Phetsile Dlamini cited as the reason to ban anti-retroviral drugs from Swaziland. As a result, Swaziland was excluded from a 14-nation US-financed programme to use anti-retrovirals to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Swaziland’s exclusion from the programme was reportedly a contributing factor to the kingdom’s absence from US President George Bush’s multimillion-dollar African initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief.
The minister’s controversial stance delayed anti-retrovirals for five years. Only now are they starting to trickle into the country.
”Proven life-saving medicines are denied the Swazi people. But any charlatan can peddle any ‘cure’ he likes, and the Health Ministry won’t lift a finger,” said activist Dlamini. — Irin