Last week, the Dean of the School of Basic Medical Science, University of Benin, Benin City, Edo State, Professor Isaiah Ibeh, claimed to have developed a possible cure for HIV/AIDS. He had claimed that his discovery , a herbal drug called bioclean II (DXL - Deconcuction X-Liquid), was capable of wiping out HIV or significantly lowering its load within a month.
Following the uproar that greeted the announcement, the National AIDS Control Agency, NACA; the National Agency for Food & Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, as well as the UNIBEN authorities, distanced themselves from the claim.
In a dramatic volte-face, Ibeh retracted the claim and tendered an apology to the University authorities.
The incident is the latest in a long line of unverified claims of discoveries of HIV and AIDS cures in Nigeria and beyond.
There is currently no proven cure for AIDS or HIV infection. And this is the whole truth. Anti-retroviral drug treatment suppresses HIV infection and delays illness for many years.
They do not clear the virus completely, they only lower the viral load and help boost the immune system. But this has not stopped wild claims of "HIV cures" or "AIDS cures" from making the rounds.
And there have been quite a few claims since the Dr Jeremiah Abalaka AIDS cure saga of March-April 2000.
Danger of false claims
Unproven cures for HIV and AIDS have been making the rounds since the early 1980s. In most cases, they have only served to worsen suffering. Fake cures are often preceded by bogus and unverified claims. Peddlers of bogus cures insist their clients avoid all other treatments, including antiretroviral medicines.
By the time a patient realises the "cure" hasn't worked, their prospects for successful antiretroviral treatment may well have diminished.
False cure claims may cause harm to health. Their inventors often refuse to reveal their recipes. So-called cures have been found to contain poisons and other lethal ingredients.
Promotion of false HIV cures undermines HIV prevention. People who believe in a cure are less likely to fear becoming infected and hence less likely to take precautions.
What constitutes a "cure"?
Many researchers believe the best hope for eradicating HIV infection lies in combining antiretroviral treatment with drugs that flush HIV from its hiding places.
But much as most scientific and medical researchers would love to find a cure, the word "cure" itself usually leads to false hopes.
There are concerns that persistent talk of a cure for HIV infection or AIDS could lead to false hopes. hence arguments for development of a vaccine appear stronger.
Researchers are divided on the ultimate attainment of a unversal HIV and AIDS cure. One school of thought does not believe there will ultimately be a cure because the amount of virus can only be kept down.
Another school of thought forsees the ultimate development of a vaccine that would enable people to be protected from being infected in the first place but say it might take another two-and-a-half decades to get an effective cure in the long term.
A cure for HIV must either remove every single one of the infected cells (known as a sterilising cure or eradication) or control HIV effectively by keeping the virus dormant, after the discontinuation of treatment (known as a functional cure). Therefore, a cure for AIDS is generally taken to mean clearing the body of HIV, which replicates by inserting its genetic code into the CD4 cells. Antiretroviral drugs interfere with this replication process, which is why the drugs are so effective at reducing the amount of HIV in a person's body to extremely low levels.
During treatment, the concentration of HIV in the blood often falls so low that it cannot be detected by the standard test, known as a viral load test. Unfortunately, not all infected cells behave the same way. Probably the most important problem is posed by "resting" CD4 cells. Once infected with HIV, CD4 cells, instead of producing new copies of the virus, lie dormant for many years or even decades. Current therapies cannot remove HIV's genetic material from these cells. Even if someone takes antiretroviral drugs for many years they will still have some HIV hiding in various parts of their body. Studies have found that if treatment is removed then HIV can re-establish itself by leaking out of these "viral reservoirs".
Calling for caution about unsubstantiated claims of HIV cure, Director General of the National AIDS Control Agency, NACA, Professor John Idoko, explained that development of cures have a defined process. "There is a process for developing drugs. Each of the antiretroviral drugs that you know which are not a cure for HIV takes an average of 10-15 years to develop.
The pipe line starts with identification of the active substance in the laboratory to animal studies to human clinical trials which again go through phases 1, 2 and 3.
"During the clinical trial phases, the drug is tested for safety, efficacy and tolerability and hundreds and thousands of people are involved. Did this happen with this drug?" He queried.
Said Idoko: "The definition of cure as I read is questionable. Who and where else has this research been replicated?
Giving herbs to a few people in the name of clinical trials is not proper procedure. What about the ethics of the research? "Herbs may be able to reduce some symptoms of Opportunistic Infections in patients e.g .cough, diarrhoea. This does not translate to cure."
How to spot fake AIDS cure claims
Who makes the claims?
Try to find some information about the claimants. What are their credentials? Where did they get their qualifications?
What are the claims?
Look at how the product is presented. Is it verified? By who, when and where? Use of sensational terms such as "miracle breakthrough" are suspect. A real scientist would be extremely wary of making wild claims. Watch for evidence of poor scientific understanding; for example, no expert would refer to HIV as "the HIV virus".
What's in the cure?
Many inventors won't reveal what goes into their "cures". Ask why. Keep in mind that words like "natural" and "herbal" are no guarantee of safety or efficacy.
What evidence do they offer?
To gain the approval of medical authorities, any new treatment must undergo very extensive testing. A proper trial involves a large group of volunteers divided randomly into two sets. Virtually all promoters of "AIDS cures" do not provide data from large-scale, randomised human trials. Instead they rely on anecdotes, personal testimonies, laboratory experiments or small-scale trials with no placebo comparison. This type of evidence is always unreliable. Personal testimonies are notoriously untrustworthy. There is no way of knowing whether the people in question ever existed, let alone whether they were helped by the therapy.
Proving that HIV has been eradicated isn't easy. Changes in symptoms or weight gain are not sufficient, and neither is a viral load test.
Even if the test can't detect HIV in the bloodstream (perhaps due to antiretroviral therapy), this doesn't mean the virus has been cleared from all parts of the body.
Beware of conspiracy theorists
Many sellers of fake medicines fall back on conspiracy theories to explain why their products haven't undergone proper testing. They say that government agencies and the medical profession seek to suppress alternative treatments to safeguard the profits of the pharmaceutical industry. This kind of allegation is a sure sign of a charlatan. In reality, leading scientists investigate all kinds of therapies that can't be patented.
Do some research
Any important medical breakthrough will be reported in peer-reviewed journals such as Nature, Science or The Lancet. The mainstream media will pick up the story and leading experts will express their opinions.