World AIDS Day. From Tanzania to Swaziland – HIV cure claims false until proven effective

World AIDS Day

From Tanzania to Swaziland, newspapers continue to report breakthrough “cures” for HIV/AIDS. As the world marked World AIDS Day yesterday, Africa Check investigated the evidence behind just three recent claims.

Researched by Melissa Meyer

If the reports emanating recently from Tanzania, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe are to be believed, yesterday could have been the last World AIDS Day ever. Clinics will soon be able to stop dispensing treatment, UNAIDS can pack up shop. We now have all the tools to solve the HIV crisis.

Take Tanzania’s Daily News. It reported last month that researchers are considering whether they should declare a herbal treatment known as Tashack to be a cure for HIV after it has shown to reduce viral load and improve immunity.

Or in Zambia, a doctor who claims his herbal formula, Topvein, is 99% effective for the treatment and cure of HIV and is available online, both there and in Zimbabwe. At the same time, The Times of Swaziland has reported that a herbal product recently introduced to the country called 3H can make people with HIV “well” within three months.

Is there any basis to any of these claims? Africa Check looked into the evidence on three herbal products being promoted as effective HIV interventions. This is what we found.

The long search for a cure for HIV

Let’s begin at the beginning. Virtually since the HI virus was first identified in 1983, the scientific community has been labouring tirelessly to try and understand how the virus works and find a way of preventing if from wrecking havoc on the human immune system.

To date, no vaccine or cure has been found but immense strides have been made in developing effective treatment. Currently antiretroviral drugs are the only known and proven treatment for HIV infection. They work by lowering the concentration of the virus in the blood, thus allowing the body to restore and maintain healthy immunity.

By preventing the onset of full-blown AIDS, antiretroviral treatment has significantly increased the life expectancy of people living with HIV. It is also used to prevent the transmission of HIV from a mother to her child and a course of drugs taken directly after exposure can significantly reduce the risk of becoming infected; an intervention with important implications for needle stick injuries, rape, or other unintended exposure.

The importance of testing

The importance of testing AIDS cure
The importance of testing AIDS cure

Before they could be distributed to the public, these ARV drugs were subjected to rigorous testing and scrutiny. The process typically involves four stages:

First it must be deemed safe by being tested on a small group of healthy volunteers. Only then will it be given to a larger group of ill people (up to 300) to determine if the treatment actually has any effect.

If the results are positive, the third stage is to measure impact on a larger scale–usually at more than one research site, involving thousands of participants (though the process is slightly different for HIV vaccine trials). And if proven effective, a marketing license is issued and the treatment can be dispensed. Finally, in a fourth stage, studies will continue to monitor longer-term effect and record any side effects.

The findings of clinical trials are usually, though not always, published in academic journals. There is mounting international pressure to make all findings emanating from clinical trials publically available.

Some progress – but no vaccine, no cure  yet

Thus far, only antiretroviral drugs have successfully passed stage three. No vaccine and nothing in the way of a cure have been proven to work effectively enough to be recognised as a viable HIV intervention. This has not been for a lack of trying. The search for an end to HIV infection is a global quest, reflected in the continued allocation of research grants to this end.

Now, in the fourth decade of the HIV epidemic vaccine researchers say they are making progress, and scientists are gaining ground.

The press keeps a very watchful eye on the race to find a cure. It has recently been announced that researchers at five UK Universities will commence a small study early next year to trial a possible HIV cure. Note: these stories were about researchers beginning a trial that they think might have a positive outcome, the results of which will only be revealed in 2017. The fact that we know this much about this early step at this stage shows unlikely it is for a real tested cure to slip through the cracks, as some claim. That no major news organisations have reported the claims made for Topvein, H3, or Tashack is an indication they are not at that stage.

In the meantime, there are a few red flags that can help set apart the science from the pseudo-science.

A lot of hot air – no proof and misleading associations

All three “treatments” investigated by Africa Check have a certain veneer of credibility.

Topvein’s champion claims it has been “clinically and scientifically” tested by Zambia’s ministry of health, “through the National AIDS Council in Zambia, South Africa and China”. Tanzania’s National Institute for Medicine Research has apparently engaged the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa, the University of Basel in Switzerland and “TNO of Netherland” in its research on Tashack. And herbal formula 3H was reportedly “developed and researched by a team of German scientists and doctors”.

This might sound impressive at first glance but means nothing, as is often the case. Having a treatment tested is not the same as having proof that it works. How it is tested and by whom is key. For example, the key ingredient in Topvein, mayenanin, was indeed tested by the Zambian National AIDS Council, but on a mere 11 participants. This is insufficient to meet proper standards. And the promoters’ claim that clinical trails were conducted in China is even more dubious. The two studies supplied as proof concern the effect of a protein isolated from a bean on an HIV enzyme in a lab-setting and an analysis of the chemical components of seeds found in Nigeria. What would count as real proof are properly randomised, controlled trials testing on humans.

We found no evidence of these for any of these formulas.

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