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TANZANIA: Popular herbal cure-all "ineffective"

The government has cautioned HIV-positive patients to keep taking their ARVs (file photo)
DAR ES SALAAM, 2 August 2012 (PlusNews) - A widely used concoction administered by Tanzanian herbalist Ambilikile Mwasapile is ineffective, the country's health minister, Hussein Mwinyi, has said.

Mwasapile, a former Lutheran pastor who claims God revealed the treatment to him in a dream, has drawn hundreds of thousands to his home in Samunge village, Loliondo, in northern Tanzania's Ngorongoro district, over the past 18 months.

Believers claim it can cure a variety of diseases, including diabetes, cancer, tuberculosis and HIV. At the peak of his popularity, he was seeing up to 2,000 patients per day, each paying 500 Tanzanian shillings (about US$0.32) for one cup of the liquid.

Mwinyi told parliament in Dodoma, the administrative capital, on 31 July that studies conducted over the past year found no discernible difference between people who used it and those who did not.

"This led us to the conclusion that the herb is not potent and effective at all. There was no change in CD4 count [a measure of immune strength], weight and general health after the herb was administered to the patients," he said.

In March 2011, a team of experts drawn from the offices of the Chief Government Chemist, the Tanzania Drugs and Food Authority, the National Institute for Medical Research and the Muhimbili National Hospital, endorsed the herb as safe for human consumption. However, the health ministry cautioned people visiting Mwasapile to continue with all other treatments prescribed for them by doctors.

Despite the warnings, many HIV-positive people abandoned their life-prolonging antiretroviral treatment after taking Mwasapile's herbs.

Residents in Arusha region, where Samunge is located, say Mwasapile's popularity has waned, with few people seeking his treatment in recent weeks.

Too late

HIV activists welcomed the minister's comments, but say they came too late. Joseph Kato, executive Director of the Service, Health and Development Organization for People Living Positively with HIV (SHDEPHA-Plus), said in the past six months members of his organization had travelled around in five Tanzanian regions where "hundreds of deaths" had occurred because people stopped taking their ARVs after visiting the herbalist.

''Many people have lost their lives after taking the cup at Samunge. It was useless''
"Many people have lost their lives after taking the cup at Samunge. It was useless," said Kato. "There are people who were on first-line ARVs, but after taking the cup and briefly abandoning ARVs, ended up moving to second-line [medication]," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Failure to adhere to ARVs can lead to resistance, forcing health workers to switch patients to more expensive second- and third-line drugs.

Rodgers Nzota, a founder member of Tanzania's Network of Youth Living with HIV/AIDS, says the Mwasapile saga should be a warning to the government of the need for more public awareness about HIV/AIDS.

"People sold their property and others borrowed heavily to obtain fare or hired vehicles and travelled to Samunge village braving bad weather including rain. They are now poor or heavily indebted, but still sick. Some are now dead," Nzota said.

"The government should have stated that there is no proof yet on the potency on the herb against diseases claimed, and advised the public accordingly. It is now too late. People have died and we still don't know the side-effects, if any, on those who took the cup."

jk/kr/he

Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Education, Health & Nutrition, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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