AIDS herbal remedies come under microscope

Zambia has officially launched a clinical trial to verify the efficacy of traditional medicines that claim to cure HIV/AIDS, the country's National AIDS Council (NAC) confirmed on Wednesday.

Justin Mwiinga, NAC donor coordinator and public relations manager, said the tests were being conducted on 25 HIV-positive respondents over a three-month period, using guidelines recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

"Many so-called AIDS cures have emerged since the advent of the pandemic in Zambia, so these trials do prove useful to corroborate whether or not such claims hold any truth. US $56,000 has been allocated to the tests and, in line with WHO recommendations, we will monitor patients according to their CD4 count (which measures the strength of the immune system), viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood) and check for side effects," Mwiinga told PlusNews.

The NAC noted that the trials had been well-received by local traditional practitioners, with 15 herbal remedies initially submitted for preliminary observation by a technical working team that included experts from Lusaka's University Teaching Hospital.

Only three formulations qualified for the final trials, including the widely publicised "Sondashi therapy" created by the country's former works and supply minister, Ludwig Sondashi.

Sondashi was in the spotlight in 2002 when he announced at a local workshop on progress in anti-AIDS treatments that chronic syphilis patients and HIV-positive people were being cured by his natural remedies after conventional medicine had failed.

Doctor Mannasseh Phiri, the chief medical officer of the 'Company Clinic' in Kitwe, in the Copperbelt province, said the trials were a welcome move, as they would help the public distinguish between "crack-pot" claims and beneficial therapies.

"To some degree, these claims have actually influenced people's attitudes towards scientifically proven antiretroviral (ARV) drugs - cases do also exist where patients have abandoned their ARVs to take up traditional remedies," Phiri pointed out.

He warned that irrational shifts from ARVs to traditional medicines could place HIV-positive people at risk of developing resistance to their former treatment combinations.

"But it is understandable that the thought of a quick solution would be tempting to some HIV-positive people, especially because these proposed herbal formulations do not require the life-long commitment and strict adherence that antiretrovirals do," Phiri told PlusNews.

Free anti-AIDS drugs are now widely available from Zambia's public healthcare facilities, but three years ago the cost in comparison to traditional medicines put them beyond the reach of many people living with HIV/AIDS. When former works and supply minister Sondashi was charging his clients just US $58 for a "cure" that only took two to three weeks of treatment, ARVs cost around US $250 per month for the rest of the patient's life.

"Although [we] western practitioners are often accused of not putting our support behind traditional medicines, we are still excited about the clinical trials, and if the results prove positive we will put our efforts into making the formulations available to the public," Phiri commented.

The NAC said the trials would yield partial results within three months, but this should be enough to reinforce or discredit the efficacy of the herbal remedies.

"Ideally, the trials should be conducted over a longer period, as some remedies are taken for more than three months, but due to financial constraints we are working within the given timeframe," the NAC's Mwiinga concluded.