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 onto the rib cage of the patient — a concoction he claims is a cure for AIDS.
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,” President Yahya Jammeh told an Associated Press reporter, surrounded by bodyguards in his presidential compound. “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, Jammeh’s claims of a miracle cure are alarming public health workers already struggling against faith-healers dispensing herbal remedies from inside thatched huts.
The biggest concern is that the Gambian leader requires patients to cease their anti-retroviral drugs, a move that risks weakening their immune systems and making them even more prone to infection, said Dr. Antonio Filipe Jr., head of the World Health Organization in neighboring Senegal.
WHO: ‘There is no cure for AIDS’
Since January, when he announced his cure to a gathering of foreign diplomats, Jammeh has thrown the bureaucratic machinery of this small West African country behind the claim. The last six news releases on Gambia’s official Web site are dedicated to the president’s treatment, available to Gambians free of charge. Regular radio and TV addresses publicize it and the Health Ministry has issued a declaration of support.
Although the HIV rate is relatively low in Gambia compared to other African nations — 1.3 percent of the country’s 1.6 million people are infected — the president’s claim has left international health organizations in a bind.
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 — No. 1: so far there is no cure for AIDS.”
Jammeh, a 41-year-old former army colonel who wrested gained control 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, beet root and lemon juice is more effective than anti-retroviral drugs. South African President Thabo Mbeki has been accused of not addressing the epidemic: His government did not provide AIDS drugs until a lawsuit by AIDS activists forced it to in 2002.
Jammeh has gone to great lengths to prove his claim, sending blood samples of the first nine patients 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 a cure.
However, the lab technician who performed the tests warned they are not conclusive since the blood samples were only taken 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 Dr. Coumba Toure Kane, head of the molecular biology unit at Senegal’s Cheikh Anta Diop University.
“It feels as if the president took the pain out of my body,” Ousman Sowe, 54, told the AP. Diagnosed with HIV in 1996, he is among the first nine men and women Jammeh has treated and has been under the Gambian leader’s 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 refused to disclose details of his herbal concoction, saying only that it uses seven plants, “three of which are not from Gambia.”
‘You will all be cured’
Treatment begins with the president applying the green paste, stored inside a deli-style plastic container. Next comes a gray-colored solution contained in an old Evian bottle and splashed on the patient’s skin. This is followed by a yellowish, tealike brew which patients are asked to drink. The therapy is administered many times over several weeks.
After the treatment session last week, Jammeh emerged 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 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 then held up the Quran, pointing it at each of the patients: “In the name of Allah, in three to 30 days you will all be cured,” he said.
The patients were then 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.
Lying on a mat on the tiled floor in the hospital ward, a 19-year-old girl struggled to say her name, spitting gray-colored phlegm into her scarf. Like everyone else in the concrete ward, she is banned from taking anti-retroviral drugs.
Nearby was 25-year-old Amadou Jallow, who recently quit his job at a tourist hotel after his mother was diagnosed with AIDS. In his savings account is $296 — enough, he said, 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.”