In Zambia, the government has introduced a law to protect people infected with the AIDS virus, HIV, from drugs that could harm their health. The law will require all anti-AIDS medications coming into the country to undergo clinical testing before being sold on the local market. From Lusaka, Danstan Kaunda has the story.
Many HIV patients in Zambia have abandoned life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs for what is said to be a miracle cure, called ‘Tetrasil.’
Tetrasil appeared on the local market shortly after a Zambian weekly newspaper published a story saying it can cure HIV with 21 days.
The tabloid quoted a controversial US-based California activist, Boyd Graves, who said over 10 HIV patients have been disease-free since January.
Graves has also said the U.S government manufactured the HIV virus in a lab – a charge disputed by the mainstream scientific community. According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, a team of international researchers reported in 1999 that they had traced the origins of HIV-1, the predominant strain of HIV in the developed world, to chimpanzees in west equatorial Africa. The CDC's web page says, "The researchers believe that HIV-1 was introduced into the human population when hunters became exposed to infected blood." (www.cdc.gov/hiv/resources/qa/qa3.htm)
In response to the controversy over the alleged cure, the government of Zambia has banned a local chemist – a sister company to the tabloid that published the claims – from selling Tetrasil. The government has also banned any press advertisements for it.
Under the new law, the Pharmaceutical Regulatory Authority of the Ministry of Health will test the safety and efficacy of all drugs and natural remedies, whether they are western medications or locally available herbs.
Dr. Canisius Banda is a spokesperson in the Ministry of Health.
"A technical working group," he said, "will be put in place to study these claims through scientific scrutiny, and if the drug (Tetrasil) passes the tests, than we will find ways on how will it be rolled out to the public, because it has to be an orderly process. We are saying that about 1.6 million people in Zambia are living with the HIV virus. Seventy-six thousand of them are on ARVs (antiretrovirals), and about 200,000 need to be on them. So if the process is not managed properly there could be a stampede or chaos."
Banda said claims of a cure for HIV / AIDS are often false – and hurt efforts to protect those infected – like government programs to provide free anti-retrovirals to pregnant mothers.
"Derailing government programs is not a wise thing to encourage," he said, "because it can threaten national security, and again that is a criminal activity. We will continue with the measures in place, but also encourage people with these claims, so that they are submitted to the ministry for scientific verification."
Meanwhile, the Network of Zambian People Living with HIV and AIDS wants the government to arrest anyone found selling Tetrasil.
Zambia has one of Africa’s highest infection rates – with about 16 percent of its population of 11 million infected.