In 2007, President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia claimed to have discovered an herbal concoction that was a “foolproof” cure for AIDS. There has been to date no scientific proof that this herbal “AIDS cure” has any beneficial effect on HIV/AIDS patients. The claim was met with widespread and well-deserved criticism from medical professionals and researchers, not the least because the treatment requires that patients stop taking any anti-retrovirus drugs. Despite the criticism, President Jammeh claims that, using his herbal cure, 68 HIV/AIDS patients have been cured in October alone.
Now President Jammeh plans on taking his alleged cure to the next level with a 1,111-bed hospital. Jammeh said in a recent statement that the hospital, massive by any scale (Johns Hopkins Hospital has only 924 beds), is set to open in 2015 and will treat 10,000 HIV/AIDS patients every month using his herbal cure.
It is hard to overstate the danger of Jammeh’s claims. By promising a cure, the country’s leader is at best giving people false hope, and is at worst actively making patients more vulnerable those interrupting their anti-retroviral treatment. Furthermore, if any of the allegedly cured patients is sexually active, they risk unwittingly exposing partners. Furthermore, health funding is finite, and spending millions of dollars building a hospital for a false cure will only end up draining Gambia’s health system’s budget at the expense of other health programs.
But it gets worse. Gambia has a low HIV infection rate (~2%) and a small population. This means that (using a back-of-the-hand calculation) there are only around 36,000 individuals with HIV/AIDS in the country. If Jammeh’s cure was real (hint: it isn’t) it would only take a little over three months to cure the entire country. It stands to reason that, based on the size of the hospital compared to Gambia’s population, that he is looking to take his promised cure outside his country’s borders. Put simply: Jammeh is doing more than promising a cure for Gambia, he is promising a cure scaled for Africa.
It is bad enough Jammeh is using the promise of an HIV/AIDS cure to garter the support of desperate patients and their families in Gambia, but if he actually builds the hospital, he will be taking those false promises international and cause even more people to stop taking proven medical treatments for HIV/AIDS. In other words, the only thing worst than the promise of this hospital would be actually building it.