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.
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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.