Health-e (Cape Town)

13 June 2008

South Africa: It's All Over for Rath

Cape Town — The Cape High Court landed the final nail in the coffin of vitamin salesman Matthias Rath's South African operations and delivered a blow to organisations peddling untested remedies when it ruled that the German doctor's clinical trials were unlawful.

Judge Dumisani Zondi interdicted Rath, his foundation, his former employee David Rasnick and employee Alexandra Niewicki from conducting any further unauthorized clinical trials in South Africa. Rath and his cohorts were further ordered to stop publishing advertisements concerning the medicinal effects of his flagship multi-vitamin, Vita-Cell "on persons with AIDS pending the submission of VitaCell to the MCC to review its medicinal claims".

Delivering his judgment, which was over in a few minutes, Zondi said health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and her director-general Thami Mseleku were under a duty to take reasonable measures to prevent Rath and his co-respondents from conducting unauthorized clinical trials and preventing them from publishing advertisements concerning the medicinal effects of Vita-Cell on people living with HIV.

Zondi further ordered Tshabalala-Msimang and Mseleku to take reasonable measures to investigate Rath's operations and to take further action depending on the results.

Nathan Geffen of the Treatment Action Campaign, the main drivers behind the court action, described the judgment as a victory for the rule of law and scientific governance which he said had been contested by the health minister and president.

"They created a culture of impunity allowing charlatans like Matthias Rath to deceive vulnerable people into taking snake oils," said Geffen.

He said it was important to remember that people had died taking the vitamins and that it was due to the health minister and president failing "to stop this quackery".

Geffen said the judgment would have an impact on the operations of others such as Christine Qunta, a director of Comforters Healing Gift which sells products claiming to cure AIDS, "the minister's good friend" Tine van de Maas who touts garlic and olive oil as well as truck driver Zeblon Gwala who sells Ubhejane.

Geffen said it was worrying that Gwala was operating in KwaZulu-Natal, the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, "where he acts with impunity".

Geffen and others who addressed the media called for the health minister to be fired.

The police, health department, human rights commission and directorate of public prosecutions have up to now failed to act against three distributors of untested AIDS remedies despite the fact that their unlawful actions were reported months and years ago.

In April this year, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) lodged a complaint with the Medicines Control Council and Law Enforcement Unit of the health department against Gwala, who sells Ubhejane in unlabelled plastic bottles to people living with HIV.

The TAC has accused Gwala of breaching the Medicines Act by selling and continuing to sell an unregistered medicine that is eligible for registration. The TAC further claimed that Gwala breached the Medicines Act by selling Ubhejane in unlabelled bottles and by making false and misleading claims about the concoction in at least one newspaper advertisement.

Gwala, who mainly distributes his product in KwaZulu-Natal, has made no secret of the fact that he believes antiretrovirals are toxic and should not be used in conjunction with his concoction. Gwala recently shared the podium with the national health minister at a meeting organized by the KwaZulu-Natal health department.

In a report, in possession of Health-e, a KwaZulu-Natal doctor tells of a 36-year-old patient who had been on antiretroviral treatment for 15 months. "He was doing well, with no reported side-effects and complications," the doctor said.

The young man consulted a traditional healer who stopped the ARV treatment and gave the patient Ubhejane. Within two weeks the patient developed complications and died.

"It was a case of sadness as the patient was doing extremely well with his CD4 count raised from 24 to 384 with his viral load suppressed," the doctor reported.

"We win some and lose some, but we are facing a huge challenge of dealing with such cases and it is an unending, continuous battle that we are facing," he added.

Sibane Mngadi, spokesperson for health department, failed to respond to questions pertaining to the complaint against Gwala.

The Democratic Alliance, who also laid a charge against Gwala with the Director for Public Prosecutions, confirmed that no progress had been made.

In October last year the TAC laid a formal complaint against Comforter's Healing Gift (CHG), Freddie Isaacs and Christine Qunta. Isaacs and Qunta are co- directors of CHG. Isaacs had reportedly told an undercover journalism students posing as a patient that the pills cure AIDS.

In a complaint lodged with Advocate Rodney de Kock, Director of Public Prosecutions, the TAC said it had prima facie evidence that CHG had breached the Medicines Act by selling unregistered medicines as a cure for AIDS.

The TAC also brought the complaint to the attention of the South African Human Rights Commission, the Medicines Control Council and the Law Enforcement Unit at the health department.

The TAC has confirmed that it has received no reply from the Prosecutor or the Human Rights Commission. The Democratic Alliance has in the interim submitted a complaint to the police. The police, Human Rights Commission and health department failed to comment despite being given several weeks to do so.

The third charge involves Secomet, a Stellenbosch based company selling various remedies for various infections, including tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Secomet makes several medical claims on its website, which the TAC said was also in breach of the Medicines Act. The TAC said there was also evidence that Secomet founder Steven Leivers and former UCT professor Girish Kotwal had conducted unauthorized experiments on people.

The TAC laid a charge with the police two years ago, in November 2006. A timeline released by the TAC documents the case being passed from one investigator to another with very little evidence of any progress. At one stage the docket was passed to the MCC after Leiver indicated to police that the council had given them permission to distribute a tonic. The SAPS failed to respond to questions relating to the investigation.

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