SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE: Claims of putting the virus to sleep worry activists

Amâncio Valentim is the traditional healer in Sao Tomé who claims to have discovered the cure for AIDS.
Sao Tome, 28 September 2007 (PlusNews) - Dorviro-Sida, or "Put AIDS to sleep" in Portuguese, is the name of the new anti-AIDS herbal remedy produced by Amancio Valentim, 52, President of the Association of Traditional Medicine in São Tome and Principe, the tiny archipelago off the coast of Gabon. He says three tablespoons of the brownish syrup, taken every day before meals, will reduce the viral load and make patients feel better.

"AIDS has no cure and I have no scientific proof that my medicine cures AIDS," Valentim hastens to explain. "But the four HIV-positive patients who have taken my medicine for four years have now tested negative." However, he cannot produce any tests, or the patients, on account of confidentiality.

Valentim presented his remedy, which he described as the fruit of twelve years of research, at an event at the National Historical Archives in the capital, the port city of São Tome, celebrating the World Day of Traditional Medicine at the end of August. Carried by radio and TV, the news spread like wildfire through the population of around 160,000.

Two weeks later, questions about Dorviro-Sida poured in during AIDS awareness meetings organised by the Portuguese non-governmental organisation, Medicos do Mundo, in five villages strewn along the jagged coast west of the capital: "Is it true there is a cure for AIDS?"

In Guadalupe, 30km inland from the capital, 28 activists from the São Tomese Association for Family Planning (ASPAF) doing door-to-door AIDS awareness heard many locals argue that AIDS was no longer a problem because there was a cure. "They heard it on TV, therefore it is true, and it is us who do not accept traditional medicine," said Dr Amado Vaz, executive director of ASPAF.

Complacency and confusion are both dangerous

Seroprevalence is relatively low at less than two percent, but activists worry that Dorviro-Sida will cause complacency in the archipelago, and put prevention on the back burner; adequate knowledge about the disease is also in short supply.

"This complicates our work," said Alzira do Rosario, head of the National Programme for the Fight against AIDS (PNLS). "With this news, people may relax on prevention and think that traditional medicine is the solution instead of antiretrovirals (ARVs)."
''With this news, people may relax on prevention and think that traditional medicine is the solution instead of antiretrovirals''

Presenting her research at a conference at the Polytechnic Institute in São Tome, Maria do Ceu Madureira, a Portuguese professor of pharmacology and expert on the local flora, described Valentim's announcement as "a little rushed, because there is no scientific proof to sustain his claim, although there is goodwill and a desire to help."

Dr Marcelina da Costa, head of the Directorates of Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare in the Ministry of Health, was harsher. "The ministry had no previous knowledge of the announcement and does not support it," she said in a statement made at the conference.

However, at his National Historic Archives presentation, Valentim was flanked by the Acting Minister of Health, Armindo Aguiar, who encouraged the healer to continue his research, according to press reports.

Valentim's announcement was reported by the media - radio, TV and newspapers - without offering views from AIDS authorities, and until da Costa's statement at the conference at the Polytechnic, which was attended by the press, there had been no official or public rebuttal of Valentim's claims about Dorviro-Sida.

"There is a reluctance of our authorities to confront institutions that wield power over people, like traditional leaders or the churches," said the ASPAF's Vaz.

Herbal remedies should be tested

Tomé Lopes Pereira, owner of a herbal medicine shop called Ervanario Ginseng, said he would not be selling Dorviro-Sida any time soon. "I don't sell local stuff because it has not gone through scientific analysis. It would be good for Valentim's medicine to be tested."

The small 30-year-old shop, lined with shelves and drawers that hold products from Brazil, Portugal and China, is set among the dilapidated pastel-coloured colonial buildings on one of the capital's busiest squares.

Customers stream in and out as the aromas of arnica, cinnamon, incense and assorted leaves and powders waft into the street. "The most difficult thing with herbal medicine is to establish the right dosage and counter-indications," Pereira pointed out.

Meanwhile, Valentim argued that his goal was to highlight São Tome's wealth of medicinal plants and traditional knowledge, and push the government to fund research.

Rich flora

Valentim has a point. The rich biological diversity on the tiny islands of São Tome and Principe includes more than 700 botanical species. Of these, 95 are endemic to São Tome and 37 to Principe. Others were brought from Latin America, the Mediterranean and Africa during 500 years of colonisation of the hitherto uninhabited islands, where Portuguese explorers landed in 1500.

Photo: Mercedes Sayagues/PlusNews
Dorviro-Sida, or "Put AIDS to sleep" in Portuguese, is the name of the new anti-AIDS herbal remedy
Madureira has spent the last 14 years researching and cataloguing local medicinal plants, as part of an ethno-pharmacology project jointly developed by the University of Coimbra, in Portugal, the Ministry of Health of São Tome and other institutions. She has worked with 40 old and respected "stlijons" (traditional healers), first earning their trust, then identifying plants and their uses.

More than half the local flora is used in traditional medicine. "These healers are walking, living libraries of solid knowledge of local plants," she said. The project has noted more than 1,000 medicinal formulae, "some extremely complex".

Seven-day brew

Valentim lives in a humble wooden home on the edge of a forest just outside São Tome. He began learning his trade from his mother and grandmother at the age of 13, but has worked as a carpenter, a hospital assistant, a musician and songwriter, in São Tome and Libreville, Gabon, where he spent 11 years.

In his consulting room two shelves hold books in Portuguese, English and French on plants, alternative medicine and nutrition. Some of Valentim´s 18 children drift in and out. His youthful-looking second wife, Fernanda, is also a traditional healer. A new batch of Dorviro-Sida is brewing, a process that takes seven days, plus one night of distillation.

The medicine is poured into old 500ml beer bottles, topped with a cork, sealed with wax, and labelled: "Dorviro-Sida, plant mixture, able to put the AIDS virus to sleep. Advice: Do not isolate yourself from the community. Face the disease naturally. Follow your doctor's advice. Use a condom during sex." A condom packet is tied to the bottle's neck.

The complete treatment requires a minimum of six bottles and a maximum of 18. Valentim advises patients to keep taking their ARVs, although one stopped last year because he felt healed.

There has been no HIV/AIDS training for traditional healers in São Tome. "Conventional doctors want nothing to do with us," said Valentim. But such training might be just the thing needed to put unfounded claims to sleep.


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

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

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