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Fraudsters Taking Advantage of People’s Desperation for HIV Cure

Fraudsters Taking Advantage of People’s Desperation for HIV Cure

Thirty-nine years after the country recorded its first HIV case at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, no cure for the disease has been found, either locally or globally. 

Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs have performed wonders in people living with HIV to the extent of suppressing one’s viral load to undetectable levels. Some people living with HIV, however, still prioritise scientifically unproven means. 

This is partly due to government's and stakeholders failure to effectively disseminate information to the population which is fueling the continued use of herbs by those with HIV as a cure for the virus, among other wrongs. 

Some people with HIV say they are not convinced with the information available in the public domain which makes them use all sorts of herbs in search of a cure.

National AIDS Commission and a Public Health expert concur that the continued behaviour of being scammed to take drugs as a cure for HIV is a sign of desperation and it is high time people accepted that ARV therapy is the only recommended drug to boost their immune system. 

Chikondi Chilambe, is a lady living positively with HIV. 

She has a word for all people living with the virus. Refrain from using herbs. 

She tried herbs herself. Chikondi thought herbs would cure HIV. She regrets it. 

"Between 2015 and 2016 I was desperate; I wanted a cure for my HIV but at the end of the day I found out it was a lie. While using those herbs, my health deteriorated, I had to go on TB treatment because of that since I was using both herbs and ARVs. 

“I just want to tell my friends with HIV that there is no medicine currently for curing HIV. The only medicine we have right now is ARV; continue taking ARVs until researchers are done,” she says. 

Kamuzu Central Hospital was first in Malawi to record an HIV case 39 years ago. At that time, myths and misconceptions derailed the war on HIV. 

There emerged some individuals claiming to have come up with a cure for the pandemic which, at that time, was claiming lives at a supersonic speed.

 People trooped from all corners of the country to these individuals but in vain. 

Snaking queues of vehicles and humans at Mchape and Chambe are still memorable images among many Malawians. The pandemic shook the nation to its core and some clever minds took advantage.

Ironically, four decades down the line, some people are still being defrauded. Even with all the scientific strides made in the fight against the spread of HIV. 

Some people living with HIV are still tricked into paying for useless herbs believing they will get cured. In some worse cases, conventional hospitals’ medicines such as gentamicin are being rebranded as a cure for HIV. 

Earlier this month, Mangochi Senior Resident Magistrate, Muhammad Chande, slapped a K2.5 million fine on Mary Julius, aged 25, and Molly Kainga, 34, for conviction on six counts of tampering with medicine labels, keeping medicine on unlicensed premises, dealing in medical supplies without a pharmaceutical license, advertising medicinal products without authorization, misleading information about HIV and obtaining money through theft by trick. 

The court found that in tricking those living with HIV, some patients may have stopped accessing and using effective treatment such as ARVs. 

Chimwemwe Mablekisi is the Director of Programs at National AIDS Commission. She acknowledges gaps in the dissemination of HIV information. 

However, she describes continued reliance on herbs by those living with HIV as a long-standing act of desperation. She applauds the Mangochi court verdict saying NAC is happy as this sends a strong warning signal to others.

 “The 2.5 million is on the lower side but I would not want to dwell much on the amount but the outcome of the issue that the person who was found guilty was fined. And this will deter other people that are fond of similar things and those who are planning to share information that there is a cure for HIV,” she says. 

And even more, NAC is working with various stakeholders; including the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) the Malawi Police Service and the Ministry of Health to take to task those deceiving HIV positive people. 

Maziko Matemba is a public health commentator.  He says despite the awareness on HIV, interventions and hitting the 95-99-95 target, Malawi is still underperforming in HIV prevention strategies.

 This, he argues, will affect commitment to end HIV as a public health threat by 2030 as more men and adolescents continue to acquire new infections. 

 “It’s human nature, people sometimes want to go the other route because of what they are hearing but also maybe sometimes they have wrong information and they’d do it their own way. As I said earlier, we still have pockets of inadequacy in investing in prevention overtime. Even though initiatives have been designed to have treatment as prevention using treatment of HIV as part of prevention. But pure prevention as it is, is an area at the moment Malawi is still struggling with.”

In September 2023, Malawi launched the Injectable Cabotegravir Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PREP) to help accelerate the fight against HIV.

Lusungu Haraba, an HIV rights advocate positively living with HIV, feels the need for the government to ensure that HIV prevention services such as PREP and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) are accessible to all.

“We have so many available options in terms of choices people can take in terms of HIV prevention. We talk of condoms, vaginal rings for women and girls, PEP, PREP and injectable PREP. In terms of implementation, I think our government is lacking in having the prevention services available to everyone,” she adds.

A 2023 UNAIDS report describes as clear the path to ending AIDS. It says that path advances progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. But despite the gains so far against HIV, the virus remains a global pandemic, claiming a life every minute in 2022 when 630 thousand people died of AIDS related illnesses.

UNAIDS says women and girls remain affected especially in Saharan Africa. And here is also where the use of unconventional treatment of HIV is a worry.

But to address this, the joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS established the 95-95-95 targets, whereby 95 percent of the people living with HIV should be diagnosed, 95 percent of those diagnosed with HIV should be on ART and 95 percent of those on ART should achieve viral suppression.

Moneko Zoto founded Moneko Zoto Foundation, an organization focused on safeguarding rights of youths living with HIV based on personal experience from when she was diagnosed with HIV herself. She faced a lot of stigma and discrimination. 

She observes, “For the youth it is hard to go to that place [hospital] because people will see them going there. Most people living with HIV don’t want people to know about their status so they feel uncomfortable going there. Even the health workers talk to other people about the status of people with HIV and this makes them stop taking ARVs.”

There is scientific evidence that integrating HIV services with other services helps people, especially youth with HIV, not to abandon receipt of ARVs.

This is because where the services are exclusive, youths shy of being seen by their peers. They feel the intentions of their hospital visit are private. This is one reason driving HIV positive youth to opt for herbs.

The desire to end HIV as a health threat by 2030 will thus remain a desire if Malawi does not decisively deal with the problem of fake HIV medications and introduce inclusive HIV treatment where such services are provided just like treatment for any other ailment, not in specialised, secluded environments. 

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Last modified on Saturday, 30/03/2024

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