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What was the presidents idea? The Gambia’s former leader, Yahya Jammeh, who left the country a year ago after two decades in power, has been accused of many crimes. But one of the strangest was forcing thousands of people with HIV to undergo treatment with a concoction of herbs he had invented himself. As the first person in The Gambia to publicly declare himself HIV-positive, Lamin Ceesay thought he was doing the right thing.
On World Aids Day that year, Ceesay plucked up the courage to go public and took part in a street march put on by an HIV charity. It earned him the respect of health campaigners worldwide. But a few years later it also brought him to the attention of Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh. so early in 2007, Jammeh declared that he’d invented his own miracle cure for the virus using a mixture of herbal medicine and spiritual healing techniques. Even more bizarrely, he said the cure only worked on Thursdays and Mondays.
Why did he think that the program work? Among them was Ousman Sowe, who had a degree in public health from Britain’s Leeds University. Hoping to give the programme some academic gravitas, Jammeh had recruited Sowe as its spokesman, to try to rebuff the doubts of incredulous foreign journalists. At one point, Sowe told a BBC reporter that he had “100% confidence” in the cure. In fact, giving up his ARVs had left him so weak that he could barely climb a flight of stairs.
What was his the presidents treatment like? At the president’s makeshift clinic at State House that the ground rules of the programme were explained. No smoking, or drinking tea or coffee. No sex. And crucially, no taking of mainstream medicine – including the anti-retroviral drugs given to him by his regular doctors. Jammeh’s armed bodyguards were stationed at the clinic doors. For the next six months, they said, no patient would be allowed to leave without his permission. Each morning the president would rub a mysterious green paste into the patients’ bodies, while chanting prayers from a leather-bound Koran. Then, twice per day, they would drink from a bottle filled with a yellow herbal potion. Jammeh refused to say what was in it, despite being told that if he really had found a cure for HIV he could make Gambia rich overnight.
Who were the patients? The patients were people who had been infected with HIV and wanted to undergo treatment. There was an interview with one of the patients of the president who was highly educated and told he was against it but didn’t say anything stupid at the moment because if he did he could end up in jail when he was in treatment.
Did it worked? Not surprisingly, this was denounced as quackery of the most dangerous sort by health chiefs around the world. People from the treatment were having constant diarrhoea. People caught tuberculosis from other patients, and eventually grew so weak that they had to be transferred back to a proper hospital. Lots of people also died during the treatment and still its unknow how many.
Where there survivers? Sowe and his fellow patients are now working with Aids-Free World, a US campaign group which wants charges to be brought against Jammeh over the programme. It says it is potentially one of the biggest human rights scandals committed by his regime. What is more, unlike his secret prisons and torture chambers, it was carried out as the world looked on. Jammeh wasn’t too keen on scrutiny, though. A senior UN health official who raised objections was kicked out of The Gambia early on. In the end, some 9,000 people are believed to have been treated, although since Jammeh kept all the clinic’s records secret, nobody has yet established just how many of them died. One thing now seems certain, though – the only “miracle” about his cure was that anyone survived at all.
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