Thursday, February 22, 2007

Snake oil

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Snakes twice in one week? Well, not really. Snake oil.

I'm not talking about the Chinese remedy shéyóu, often used as a remedy for inflammation and pain. I'm talking about supposedly miraculous 'medical' remedies made from mysterious and magical ingredients. Remember some of those old Westerns? They always had a snake oil salesman character in there someone, a travelling doctor with dubious credentials, hawking some magical cure for all ills.

It seems 'snake oil cures' are alive and well.

The most potent current example comes from Ghana where President Yahya Jammeh claims to have developed a cure for AIDS. The cure involves seven plants used to produce a combination of products for application to the patient and a tea which patients drink. Patients must also must stop drinking alcohol, tea and coffee, avoid kola nuts and sex during treatment. The cure is expected to take 30 days.

The real concern is that patients are also requested to cease taking anti-retroviral drugs which can lead to a weakening of the immune system and increase risk of infection.

President Jammeh is sending his patients for testing. I guess the proof will be in the pudding so to speak. So far, anecdotal evidence suggests the patients are feeling better. Effective treatment or simply a placebo effect?

In a continent devastated by the highest rates of HIV infection in the world, it is understandable how individuals could attach hope to any suggestion of a cure or treatment, no matter how outlandish the claim. However, as Dr Antonio Filipe, the local head of the World Health Organisation, seeks to remind us all, "As the World Health Organisation, we would like to state quite clearly the following - so far, there is no cure for AIDS."


'A new all-time low' by Ben Goldacre at Bad Science talks about the treatment of Zackie Achmat
and his fight to secure HIV medications for all against those who claim HIV medications causes AIDS, not HIV itself.

Thank you to Sisiphus for drawing my attention to this link.



Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Oh, this is just terrible to read. No matter how much I learn about the psyche and people, I am still in awe of things like this.

Alison said...

I'm glad you've drawn attention to HIV. I was just thinking the other day that this discussion is now largely absent - not "fashionable" anymore I guess.

psychosomartyr said...

Aetiology has a discussion of the success rate of this cure: "Jammeh has gone to great lengths to prove his claim, sending blood samples of the first nine patients to a lab in Senegal for testing. A letter on the lab's stationery indicates that of the nine, four had undetectable viral loads, one had a moderate viral load and three had high loads, a result posted on the government's Web site as proof of a cure...there was no baseline measurement taken for this. Those who had undetectable viral loads easily could have had them at that level prior to treatment, so it can't be said that the treatment reduced the viral levels in the blood. Second, one with "moderate" and three with high viral loads--and he's touting that as "proof" of his cure?"

It's very distressing.

sisiphusledge said...

I read Ben Goldacre's column on the problem of 'snake oil' type remedies several weeks back and was very distressed. Rather than flood your comments column with what he was saying, I'll leave a link to his post:-

When I was still dancing, prior to medicine, many people tried to disuade Rudolf Nureyev from taking anti-HIV drugs. Not a great deal was known then (the early 1980's) and he would have stacks of bottles all full, because someone else had suggested that sunshine or vitamin 'x' was what he needed. Because he so desperatelt wanted to believe that he did not need the pharmaceuticals which made him feel ill to boot, he didn't take the very drugs that might have helped him.

Very sad.

HP said...

Hi Alison,
Exactly right. There's a kind of HIV/AIDS fatigue going on I think. See

Hi Psychosomatyr,
Have to admire the science of it all. Not. It is distressing because, at the end of the day, it's promoting false hope and steering people away from treatment that has at least proved to be helpful.

Hi Sisiphus,
Thank you so much for that link. Very interesting stuff. I hadn't heard anything about that. If you don't mind, I will update the post to include the link.
Extremely sad about Nureyev. Desperate circumstances make people extremely vulnerable to this kind of thing..It would hurt so much if they also continued mainstream treatment alongside.

Patient Anonymous said...

I am speechless. I spent a few years volunteering in an HIV/AIDS hospice and it was the area where I wanted to work had I pursued nursing. Reading that article was just...ugh.

jumpinginpuddles said...

why oh why do people believe this stuff :O

HP said...

Hi Patient Anonymous,
It is just plain awful.

One word I guess. Desperation.