18 Mar 2007
In January, the president of the tiny West African country of Gambia Yahya Jammeh surprised everyone by announcing that he can cure Aids and asthma (both chronic diseases that patients currently control with life-long drug therapy). Claiming that his ancestors revealed the treatment to him in a dream, Yahya Jammeh told invited diplomats that; “I now have the mandate to cure people publicly---the mandate I have is that Aids cases can be treated on Thursdays”.
Many people in the medical community would have brushed aside his claim as a joke and forgotten about it if subsequent events were not to continue bringing the issue to limelight. When the UN envoy to Gambia, Fadzai Gwaradzimba urged HIV/AIDS patients to continue their normal antiretroviral therapy and suggested that an international team of experts assess Jammeh’s concoction, she was kicked out of the country.
As time went by, Jammeh and his aides became more arrogant and dogmatic about their miracle cure. In February Yahya Jammeh told the Associated Press bluntly; “Mine is a proof. It’s a declaration. I can cure AIDS and I will.” Yahya who has no medical training may be excused for being so confident in stating his claims. What about his Health Minister Tamsim Mbowe that is a trained physician? Here is what the minister told CNN a couple of days ago; “I can swear, 100 percent, that this herbal medication His Excellency is using is working. It has the potency to treat and cure patients infected with the HIV-virus.” In his reaction to these claims, WHO’s Antonio Filipe (based in neighboring Senegal) reiterated the stance of the World Health Organization that “so far there is no cure to Aids”.
In order to better understand the current controversy, a definition of some medical terminology is necessary. Treatment means the administration or application of remedies to a patient or for a disease or injury. It also applies to surgical management. Cure means the restoration of health or the recovery from disease. Viral Load test measures the amount of active HIV virus in your blood (usually reported as copies of HIV in one milliliter of blood). The best viral load test result is “undetectable”. If they say that a test cannot detect the virus in your blood, it does not mean that the virus is absent in your blood. It means that the virus is undetectable within the limits of the sensitivity of the equipment employed.
The goal of antiretroviral treatment (not cure) is to have the lowest possible viral load. Current therapies cannot completely remove (cure) HIV from the human body.
Getting back to the controversial claim, at one instance the Jammeh camp claimed that they sent blood samples of their patients to Senegal for analysis. 4 of the 9 samples tested had ‘undetectable’ viral load. To the best of my knowledge this is the closest they have come to scientific scrutiny. Based on our understanding, these tests do not really mean much. Firstly, patients’ samples were to be sent to the lab before and after treatment. The samples were only sent after treatment. Secondly, ‘undetectable’ does not mean cure. Thirdly, even if the virus is completely suppressed in the blood (which is highly unlikely) it certainly will be present in other body tissues like lymph nodes, spleen and brain.
I am not questioning Yahya Jammeh’s claim to be a herbalist, but I am categorically saying that his claim to cure Aids is misleading and scientifically challengeable. The most he can do is to claim to treat Aids and not cure Aids. His Excellency can be pardoned if he did not clearly understand the difference between treat and cure. The same cannot be said of his Health Minister Tamsim Mbowe who is a medical doctor. Unless he claims that he was misquoted by CNN, his declaration was seen in certain quarters as an embarrassment to the medical corps.
Currently there are about 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the world and in 2006 about 2.9 million people died of AIDS. This pandemic has been causing untold suffering to humanity for close to 25 years. All along, Aids patients have had their hopes raised and dashed by fake herbalists and miracle healers in religious garbs. God forbid, nobody expects the president of a country to be suspected of being a charlatan. It will be the joy of everybody if his claim to cure for Aids is confirmed.
For the avoidance of doubt, it will absolutely be necessary that President Yahya Jammeh invites a team of independent international scientists to come and investigate his miracle cure. The WHO and other relevant organizations should bring pressure to bear on the president to let this scrutiny take place. The stakes are high and I think there is a price to pay if this claim turns out to be false.
Njei Moses Timah