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In Gambia, AIDS cure or false hope?

Story Highlights

• Gambian president says he has discovered a cure for AIDS
• Health officials believe he is bringing false hope to those suffering
• President has no medical degree, says treatment came to him in a dream
• Global health officials want to conduct scientific tests on the herbal concoction
By Jeff Koinange
CNN

BANJUL, Gambia (CNN) -- At the only hospital in the capital of this tiny West African nation, a 3-year-old AIDS patient named Suleiman receives his daily dose of medication -- a murky brown concoction of seven herbs and spices served out of a bottle that once contained pancake syrup.

The boy is told a spoonful a day will make him better. His mother, Fatuma, takes the same concoction, as do several dozen other AIDS and HIV patients here. Adults take two spoonfuls.

"It's amazing," Fatuma says. "Two weeks ago, I was very ill, weak and couldn't eat without vomiting."

This has become the treatment for HIV/AIDS patients here since early January, when Gambian President Yahya Jammeh announced he had discovered a cure for the disease that has wreaked havoc across Africa. He made that announcement in front of a group of foreign diplomats, telling them the treatment was revealed to him by his ancestors in a dream.

His concoction has stirred controversy and anger among health officials who say the president's claims will bring false hope to the nation's more than 20,000 HIV/AIDS patients. They are also afraid that it could cause patients to stop taking the anti-retroviral drugs that have been proven to prolong life and improve quality of living.

One critic was Fadzai Gwaradzimba, the U.N. envoy to Gambia. She was abruptly kicked out of the country after saying on February 9 that patients should continue their normal treatment and that Jammeh's concoction be "assessed by an international team of experts."

"The U.N. system encourages all patients currently receiving anti-retroviral treatment to continue to comply with their recommended treatment regimens while the efficacy of the new treatment is being assessed," she said. (Read full statement)

The U.N. Development Program stands by the envoy's remarks. The World Health Organization has also been critical of Jammeh's treatment.

No formal medical training

Jammeh, 41, is a former army colonel who has no formal medical training. He wears white robes and carries a copy of the Quran with him in this mostly Muslim nation.

His degree is a high school diploma. But he claims his family has a history of healing people through traditional African medicine.

At the hospital in the capital, patients claim the president's concoction is making a difference to them.

Ousman Sow, 54, said he's been HIV-positive since 1996 and had been taking anti-retrovirals for the past fours years until he volunteered for this program.

Four weeks later, he said he's gained 30 pounds and feels like a new person.

"I am cured at this moment," he said.

Asked if he had any HIV symptoms, he responded, "No, I don't. As I stand before you I can honestly tell you I have ceased to have any HIV symptoms."

Patient after patient gave similar statements to CNN. But it was difficult to verify the authenticity of their testimony. The government claims to have scientific evidence, but it did not provide any to CNN.

Jammeh refused to speak to CNN for this report.

CNN also sought medical reports of the HIV/AIDS patients to see whether they are indeed on the mend. The material was not provided. The government would also not release the concoction to CNN for testing.

Gambian Health Minister Tamsim Mbowe, a trained physician with multiple medical degrees, defended the so-called herbal cure.

"I can swear, 100 percent, that this herbal medication His Excellency is using is working. It has the potency to treat and cure patients infected with the HIV-virus," he told CNN.

What does he have to say to skeptics?

"I will tell them, as a Western medical trained doctor with 13 years experience meeting different professors, meeting different colleagues of mine, I've seen His Excellency, my leader, coming up with herbal medications that are able to treat and cure patients with HIV-virus, which have been proven within all medical and laboratory parameters."

Health officials worldwide remain doubtful of these claims. Experts also say it's in places like Gambia that the poor and desperate will latch onto anything resembling hope.

"For a country's leader to come up with such an outlandish conclusion is not only irresponsible, but also very dangerous, and he should be reprimanded and stopped from proclaiming such nonsense," said Professor Jerry Coovadia of the University of Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa.

 
 
 
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2007 Cable News Network.