It is estimated that 5% of people living in Sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV – that’s 22.5 million people. Infection rates vary wildly from country to country, with Swaziland having the highest rate at 25.9%. Gambia is below average, at 2% or 18 thousand people, but still has a serious HIV problem, and now finds themselves at the center of the HIV controversy in Africa.

This epidemic has been magnified by unfortunate realities on the ground. Africa has an insufficient public health and medical infrastructure to deal with the massive challenge such an epidemic presents. This has led the World Health Organization to contemplate partnering with local traditional healers, to make them into an extension of the effort to bring modern medical treatment to the HIV-infected in Africa. This desperate strategy is fraught with problems, not the least of which is that most traditional healers have had no prior contact with science-based medicine.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki seriously set back his country’s HIV efforts by embracing crank HIV denial. Coupled with his denialism was efforts by Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to use traditional medicines to treat HIV/AIDS. This combination resulted in restrictions on the distribution of anti-retoviral drugs in South Africa that is estimated to have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

Tshabalala appealed to local tradition over science and evidence, and in fact resisted attempts to scientifically study her beet-root and other “natural” remedies. She argued that treatment with traditional methods should not get “bogged down in clinical trials” and criticized attempts to impose “Western science” on African methods.

Joining the ranks of leaders contributing to, rather than ameliorating, the HIV epidemic in Africa is Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. He is promoting the traditional medicine approach, adding his own cult of personality angle. He claims to have invented a secret formula of boiled herbs. In a state television address he said:

“Just as the Prophet Mohammed prevailed and established Islam (…)I also prevailed to cure HIV/AIDS to the point that 68 are being discharged today,”

“Who am I to expect that everybody would praise me.”

His herbal treatment also requires that patient stop their anti-retroviral therapy – which has garnered criticism from the WHO. Jammeh’s treatment is also more than just herbs. It has a healthy dollop of religion as well:

The treatment involves several herbal cream applied and consumed over a number of weeks and prayer from the Qur’an. His patients have to renounce alcohol, tea, coffee, theft and sex for the duration of their treatment.

He is also quoted as saying:

“Those who said that HIV/AIDS is not curable may be right because if you don’t know God and you believe that you descended from frog and you are not created by the Almighty Allah or you came to this world through evolution then you would not know that anything that happens in this world good or bad, Allah knows about it and has solutions about it. There is no disease that the Almighty Allah doesn’t know about and there is no disease without a cure.”

This all may seem strange and even primitive, but it is not fundamentally different from any form of faith healing in the West, or even most forms of co-called alternative medicine. The psychological elements are all the same. Treatments often involve avoiding alleged toxins or unhealthy foods or activities, and require a certain amount of faith – if not overtly religious, then in the human energy field, meridians, or magical homeopathic energies.

We also see the mislabeling of magical faith-based treatments as “traditional” in order to make them more palatable. Finally, despite frequent claims that alternative treatments are “complementary” to science-based medicine rather than a replacement for it, they are frequently a replacement for science-based therapies.

Once you reject rigorous science-based standards as the basis for modern medicine, then there is no practical or philosophical difference between whatever “alternative” treatment you offer in its place and the dangerous herbal witchcraft of Jammeh. The only difference between homeopathy, acupuncture, healing touch and Jammeh’s herbs is subjective and cultural.



Posted by Steven Novella