(Geneva, February 28, 2008) – The United Nations and its member states are failing to address serious threats to life and health posed by the promotion of unproven AIDS “cures” and by counterfeit antiretroviral drugs, Human Rights Watch said today.
In an article published yesterday, “Dangerous medicines: Unproven AIDS cures and counterfeit antiretroviral drugs,” in the peer-reviewed journal Globalization and Health, Human Rights Watch cited examples of the promotion of unproven AIDS treatments in countries as diverse as Zambia, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, India, and Zimbabwe. The article also discusses how the absence of regulation or monitoring for counterfeit antiretroviral medicines threatens the lives and health of thousands of people living with HIV and AIDS, even in regions like Southeast Asia where counterfeit pharmaceuticals are widespread.
“Fake cures have been promoted since AIDS was first identified,” said Joseph Amon, HIV/AIDS Program director at Human Rights Watch and author of the article. “In the era of expanded antiretroviral treatment programs, the failure of governments to monitor these false claims and ensure accurate information about life-saving antiretroviral drugs undermines global efforts to fight AIDS.”
Gambia and Iran deserve particular scrutiny, according to the article. In both countries, officials at the highest levels of government have been directly involved in the promotion of unproven therapies. International condemnation of their actions, however, has been absent or muted.
In Gambia in February 2007, President Yahya Jammeh claimed to have developed an herbal cure for AIDS that was effective in three days if people taking the treatment discontinued taking antiretroviral drugs and refrained from alcohol, caffeine, and sex. Following the announcement, Gambian journalists who criticized the so-called cure were fired, and the UN resident coordinator in Gambia, Fadzai Gwaradzimba, was permanently expelled for asking for scientific proof of the treatment’s effectiveness.
Since Jammeh’s announcement, scant global attention has been paid to the availability of effective AIDS treatments in the country. Last week, however, the Gambian government announced with much fanfare that Jammeh had been awarded an honorary degree in Herbal and Homeopathic medicine by the Brussels-based Jean Monnet European University. In accepting the degree, Jammeh announced that he had discovered cures for obesity and impotence, adding to his previously declared “cures” for infertility, diabetes, and asthma. According to the President’s office, hundreds of people have taken the remedies for HIV/AIDS. Gambian authorities have failed to provide information on the degree to which patients taking the medicine had freely volunteered to do so, and also on independent verification of the health outcomes.
Also in 2007, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced the discovery of “IMOD” (an abbreviation for “immuno-modulator drug”), an herbal AIDS treatment made from seven local Iranian herbs. The government has promoted the drug as a “therapeutic vaccine” and as the “first choice” for treatment in resource-constrained developing countries. The President’s Office for Technology Cooperation has also promoted the remedy and sought partners for joint marketing, clinical trials and manufacturing. According to news reports in November, the Iranian Minister of Health and Medical Education stated that all patients with advanced HIV disease—more than 1,500 overall—would be treated with IMOD.
Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations to put pressure on countries promoting unproven AIDS treatments to provide complete, accurate information about effective HIV/AIDS treatment and to correct false and misleading information about unproven therapies.
“Countries are gambling with the lives of people living with HIV by promoting unproven AIDS remedies,” said Amon. “The UN should condemn this practice and work with governments and civil society groups to ensure that effective AIDS treatment and information about it are provided.”
In 2006, the United Nations issued a declaration on HIV/AIDS committing all member states to pursue “all necessary efforts” to scale up HIV/AIDS treatment programs towards the goal of providing universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment by 2010.
“Access to effective medicines is an indispensable part of the right to the highest attainable standard of health,” said Amon. “Billions of dollars that are being spent on scaling up antiretroviral treatment will be undermined if governments ignore the threats posed by unproven AIDS treatments and counterfeit drugs.”