Dying for an AIDS cure

Associated Press
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh prays while administering his alleged herbal AIDS cure to a patient at the State House in Banjul, Gambia,

As grimly aware as Americans are of the specter of AIDS, it's cold comfort that the United States doesn't feel the sheer magnitude of the global epidemic as other countries do.

AIDS cases account for about .6 percent of the U.S. population. But in sub-Saharan Africa, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is as looming and deadly a killer as has ever stalked any part of our planet.

That part of the world accounted for almost two-thirds of all HIV and AIDS cases last year - 24.7 million people. Clearly this is the raging battlefront in the war against AIDS, and it's a war many nations are committed to win.

But there is another battle.

America currently is administering a five-year, $15 billion initiative to help and treat millions of Africans infected or affected by AIDS and HIV. One main push is to get anti-retroviral drugs to 2 million sufferers.

The battle-within-a-battle, as with other wars, is winning hearts and minds.

Leaders and others in many African nations are skeptical of what scientists worldwide say is the best chance of surviving this deadly disease. And that skepticism, under the guise of freedom of choice, is killing people.

In Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh claims to have an outright cure for AIDS. It involves an herbal paste, a bitter yellow drink, two bananas and a great deal of prayer.

His patients will need those prayers. As a condition of treatment, he tells AIDS sufferers to stop taking any anti-retrovirals they may be on.

It's little better in other countries. Herbalists and self-proclaimed prophets in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda have deceived untold thousands - often for tidy sums of money - into thinking that plants or roots or healing sessions are better alternatives for curing one of the world's most deadly diseases.

But those are opportunists preying on patients prone to suggestibility. In Gambia, a quack AIDS cure exists on the fringes of public policy because it's being pushed by the president and administered on government property. That virtually institutionalizes a distrust of modern medicine, and that is extremely dangerous.

It's perhaps worse in South Africa, where more than one in five people have HIV or AIDS. There, President Thabo Mbeki has publicly questioned the effectiveness of anti-retrovirals and, incredulously, has challenged the link between HIV and AIDS. And South Africa's own health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has recommended to fight AIDS not with drugs, but with a diet of garlic, lemons and beet root.

As of Friday, Ms. Tshabalala-Msimang was in intensive care at a Johannesburg hospital suffering from a lung ailment and acute anemia.

The fight to conquer AIDS in Africa will go nowhere until the fight is won against leaders who are discrediting effective modern treatment. And if their own leaders won't fight for their citizens' lives, who will?

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