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president's claim of AIDS cure causes alarm

president's claim of AIDS cure causes alarm

From the pockets of his billowing white robe, Gambia's president pulls out a plastic container, closes his eyes in prayer, and rubs a green herbal paste on to the ribcage of his patient. He then orders the thin man to swallow a bitter yellow drink, followed by two bananas.

''Whatever you do, there are bound to be skeptics, but I can tell you my method is foolproof,'' says Yahya Jammeh, surrounded by his bodyguards inside his presidential compound as he prepares to treat more patients. ''Mine is not an argument, mine is a proof. It's a declaration. I can cure AIDS and I will.''

In a continent suffering from the world's worst AIDS epidemic, claims of miracle cures like those of Jammeh are alarming public health workers already struggling against the corrosive effect of faith-healers dispensing herbal remedies from thatched huts.

The biggest concern to experts is that Jammeh requires his patients to cease their antiretroviral drugs, a dangerous move since doing so can weaken the body's immune system, making the patient prone to infection, said Antonio Filipe Jr., local head of the World Health Organization in neighboring Senegal.

Since January, when he announced his cure to a gathering of foreign diplomats, Jammeh has thrown the bureaucratic machinery of his small West African country behind his claim of a cure. Although compared to other African nations, the HIV rate is relatively low here--1.3% of Gambia's population of 1.6 million--the last six press releases on the country's official Web site are dedicated to the president's treatment. Regular radio and TV addresses publicize his alleged cure, available to Gambians free of cost. The health ministry issued a declaration of support.

It's left international health organizations in a bind, with some like UNAIDS, the agency that coordinates the global fight against the deadly virus, reluctant to comment for fear of damaging relations with the government.

WHO's Filipe was diplomatic about Jammeh's claims, saying his organization respects the president's point of view. But he added, ''As the World Health Organization, we would like to state quite clearly the following--number 1, so far there is no cure for AIDS.''

Jammeh, a 41-year-old former army colonel who wrested control of his country in a 1994 coup, says his treatment is entirely voluntary and argues that his medications cannot be mixed with other drugs because ''I don't want any complications.''

The claim of a cure has prompted comparisons to the South African minister of health who won international ridicule last year for suggesting that a diet of garlic, beetroot, and lemon juice is more effective than antiretroviral drugs. South African president Thabo Mbeki has been accused of not addressing the epidemic. (His government did not provide AIDS drugs until a suit by AIDS activists forced it to in 2002.)

But unlike his South African counterpart, Jammeh has gone to great lengths to prove his claim, arranging for blood samples of the first nine patients to be sent to a lab in Senegal for testing.

A letter on the lab's stationery indicates that of the nine, four had undetectable viral loads, one had a moderate viral load, and three had high loads, a result posted on the government's Web site as proof of the cure. However, the lab technician that performed the tests warned they are not conclusive since the blood samples were taken only after the treatment.

''There is no baseline.... You can't prove that someone has been cured of AIDS from just one data point. It's dishonest of the Gambian government to use our results in this way,'' said Coumba Toure Kane, head of the molecular biology unit at Senegal's Cheikh Anta Diop University.

Waiting in plastic chairs outside Jammeh's treatment chamber, the patients themselves say they don't need lab results to tell them they feel better.

''It feels as if the president took the pain out of my body,'' says Ousman Sowe, 54, who says he was diagnosed with HIV in 1996. Sowe was among the first batch of nine men and women who were treated by Jammeh and have been in his care for nearly a month.

''My appetite has come back and I have gained weight,'' said Lamin Ceesay, thin from a nine-year battle with HIV.

Jammeh has so far refused to disclose details of his herbal concoction, saying only that the treatment uses seven plants--''three of which are not from Gambia.'' The treatment begins with the president applying the green paste, stored inside a deli-style plastic container. Next is a gray-colored solution, which he splashes on the patient's skin. It's stored inside an old Evian bottle, as is the yellowish, tealike brew which patients are asked to drink. The therapy is administered numerous times over the course of several weeks.

After treating the original nine, Jammeh emerged from his black-tinted treatment chamber carrying a tall wooden staff, a string of Islamic prayer beads, and a leather-bound Quran. In front of him, 30 new patients waited on lawn chairs, drawn, like the first batch, from the roughly 20,000 people currently living with HIV in Gambia.

He told them that during treatment they must cease drinking alcohol, tea, and coffee. They also cannot eat kola nuts or have sex.

Jammeh held up a leather-bound copy of the Quran, pointing it at each of the patients in turn: ''In the name of Allah, in three to 30 days you will all be cured,'' he said.

The 30, still awaiting treatment, were herded into a minibus and driven to an empty hospital ward on the outskirts of the capital, where they will stay in dormitory-style rooms with sheets covering the windows for the duration of the treatment.

In a campaign to convince the world his cure is real, the patients are Jammeh's greatest asset and also his potential downfall.

Lying on a mat on the tiled floor in the hospital ward, a 19-year-old girl struggles to say her name, spitting a gray-colored phlegm into her scarf. Like everyone else in the concrete ward, she has been forbidden to take her antiretroviral drugs.

Also there was 25-year-old Amadou Jallow, who recently quit his job at a tourist hotel after his wheelchair-bound mother was diagnosed with AIDS. In his savings account is $296--enough, he says, to last him the 30 days Jammeh promises it will take to heal his mother.

''I'm just afraid that, what if my account runs low?'' he said. ''But by then, I think she will be cured.'' (Rukmini Callimachi, AP)

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