In Zambia
Mostafa Hussein

CAIRO — The Egyptian military, with its recently announced Complete Cure device, is hardly the first to claim unproven cures for diseases that have ravaged millions of lives. Since the discovery of HIV/AIDS, false claims of cures have been advertised and often endorsed by governments all over the world — especially in Africa, the continent with the highest rates of infection.

The late Egyptian surgeon Ahmed Shafiq and Congo scientist Zirimwabagabo Lurhuma (whose country was then Zaire) claimed they had found a cure for AIDS in 1987.

They called the treatment MM1 or Mobutu-Mubarak 1 after the military dictators of their respective countries.

Shafiq, a professor of surgery at Cairo University and a celebrated researcher in anatomy and the functions of the urinary bladder and anus, told Egyptian state media that they had achieved an unprecedented medical breakthrough. Though the treatment itself was kept secret, Lurhuma and Shafiq claimed that it was effective in 60% of cases and had no side effects.

The announcement was a sensation. I was seven at the time and remember seeing an interview with the surgeon at his home. At one point, the camera panned to show the many certificates decorating his wall. My 7-year-old self regarded it all as very impressive.

The announcement was received with skepticism internationally, especially because the team refused to show the world anything to scrutinize. There was little local criticism, however, as Shafiq had strong connections within political and media circles.

A year later, Egyptians had forgotten all about MM1. Egypt had a relatively small number of HIV patients anyway. Most of the damage of the duo’s claims was in Zaire, where there were more cases and where their claims led people to believe HIV/AIDS was curable, hindering awareness campaigns necessary for preventing the spread of the disease.

Meanwhile, in South Africa

In South Africa, HIV has for years been the largest public health care problem, and in the 1990s antiretroviral treatments were inaccessible to the majority of the population because of drug patents and widespread ignorance about the disease. This was compounded by the refusal of then-President Thabo Mbeki to accept medical evidence that AIDS was in fact caused by a virus.

An HIV/AIDS outreach event in Angola — Photo: USAID

Mbeki supported the testing of a drug called Virodene, which was developed by a team of three who went directly to the media to announce their development. Their secret formula contained a dangerous industrial solvent.

Blocked at home by South Africa’s drug regulatory authority, the developers approached the Tanzanian military to test it on Tanzanian soldiers. Mbeki paid for the unethical trials from funds allocated to the presidency.

Harvard University researchers estimated that Mbeki’s refusal to accept medical evidence was responsible for the deaths of 340,000 people. Pursuing wonder drugs probably made things worse.

Mistakes repeated all over Africa

In 2000, the Nigerian army’s chief of staff and the army’s chief medical officer announced that 30 soldiers returning from Liberia were cured of HIV by a vaccine developed by a doctor named Jeremiah Abalaka. The military then ordered a large supply.

Because of the military support, government officials and members of scientific institutions were reluctant to criticize the cure. The cure received intense media coverage, and Abalaka became wildly popular.

Several months later, the Nigerian presidency banned the drug after medical professionals raised concerns about the methods Abalaka used. It was already too late. Hundreds had paid their hard-earned money for the $1,000 cure, and Abalaka made a fortune. In the wake of local and foreign criticism, Abalaka claimed that he was the victim of an international conspiracy by the global pharmaceutical industry. He claimed that he injected himself with blood containing HIV several times and didn’t contract the infection.

Hundreds protested the government’s decision, and Abalaka’s treatment remains a source of controversy. Some defend him, arguing that the Nigerian government should not have dropped its support and that if he was white and worked for a major Western university his cure wouldn’t have been dismissed.

In 2007, Gambia’s current president also announced that he had invented a cure for AIDS. Yahya Jammeh, a 48-year-old military man, came to power following a military coup in 1994. He has a high school diploma and is a self-trained traditional healer.

Jammeh advised patients receiving his herbal cure to stop their antiretroviral treatment and told them that following his single-dose cure would mean they could no longer infect other people.

The UN envoy to the country was expelled after she expressed doubts about the treatment and warned of its risks. The treatment — which he said was revealed to him in a dream —was still being provided as of 2011 as part of an alternative treatment program that included cures for infertility and hypertension. Gambia’s dictator will open a hospital for his herbal cures by 2015.

Every year hundreds of quacks and pseudo-scientists come up with extraordinary claims of cures for the most lethal diseases. But it’s far more serious when governments back these claims.

And the story is the same every time.

Doctors or traditional healers connected to politicians or the military go to the media directly with untested cures, sometimes following unethical experiments with little scientific significance. They present their claims in a way that looks scientific or in a manner appealing to the general public but provide little information on what the cure is made of or how it works, claiming that it's a national secret. The officials bask in the glory and try to silence critics, not least by casting skepticism as a conspiracy.

Some people living with these diseases may be easily influenced by grand claims, due to little or no access to specific treatments, discriminatory treatment or frustration with the limitations of the available treatments.

Egypt has the highest prevalence of Hepatitis C in the world, and access to treatment is limited. The latest approved medication, which is much easier to administer and has fewer side effects, is outrageously expensive. A ban has been in place since 2010 preventing HCV screening for applicants, but the practice persists in some private companies. Meanwhile, young people living with the virus are often refused jobs abroad, which may be their only escape from poverty.

False hope offered by miracle cures and promoted by authoritarian regimes with no accountability can cause extensive and lasting harm and, as in the case in South Africa, the loss of so many lives.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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