In Buea, Cameroon, 26 year-old Lydia lives in one room house with her husband. She has been living with HIV for at least seven years now. As she stares at her sleeping, beautiful baby girl who was born HIV negative, she speaks of her firm belief that the only way to control HIV is by taking antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. Her unconditional acceptance of ARVs comes after two encounters with people who failed to deliver on their promise of a cure for HIV. One of is the owner of a modern herbalist clinic in the outskirts of Buea.
"I was followed up for three months after I developed a serious cough that refused to go away," says Lydia. "The 'Dr' said he will first treat the cough before he will see into the HIV. But he did not even treat the cough so I could not wait to see about the HIV.”
After spending about $300 at this clinic in three months and not getting any better, Lydia says she finally went to a hospital and was prescribed medicine that did not cost up to $10, but that cleared her cough almost immediately.
For a number of years now, this man has claimed he can cure HIV in newspapers, on radio and TV stations all over Cameroon. Lydia is just one in thousands of people who have believed his adverts or charismatic interviews, and gone to his clinic, seeking a cure for HIV. He admits his claims raise "a lot of debate but [he] has been healing so many HIV cases." But it is hard to find anyone who will confirm that they have been cured of HIV after taking his medicine. He claims those he has cured have not come forward because of stigma associated with HIV. He also says his former patients that have spoken out against him, defaulted on his treatment. "They are those who started their treatment and ended halfway," he says. "There are people who are ready to testify... I even have interviews, documented videos, which people we have given treatment and they are fine, testify. Maybe I am waiting for the appropriate time to release them." This "Dr's" HIV cure allegedly works over an eighteen-month period and costs on the average $52 a month.
The clinic owner is not the only one in Buea who claims to cure HIV. Lydia says for nine months last year, she did not take antiretroviral treatment because a man of God in Buea told her she had been healed. "He picked me out of the crowd and prayed for me and said that I had been healed," she says. "They told me that when I go back home I should take all my files and drugs and everything connected with the HIV thing and throw."
Lydia says she threw her all drugs in a trash can and stayed for almost a year without taking them, believing that she had been healed. But her condition got worse. "Before, I had a CD4 of 800, but by the time I went back to the hospital I had a CD4 of 43. I had depreciated until, I did not even have energy to support myself, my hair was falling off and my husband was telling me every day that I was going to die." Fortunately, she responded well to the ARVs when she was restarted on them and recovered fully.
So many men of God, traditional doctors and even some medical doctors in Cameroon have claimed to cure HIV. A clinic in Yaoundé, claims that is has been able to treat HIV for years, using a therapeutic vaccine known as VANHIVAX. This vaccine was developed by a respected cancer researcher.
The present director of the clinic maintains that they have a cure for HIV. "We’ve cured about 33 patients," he says, "and in 2007 we even published some cases in the Cameroon Academy of Science journal." But none of the 33 people that have allegedly been cured by VANHIVAX have ever come forward to confirm. Instead, many people who went to the clinic for a cure and came back disappointed, have spoken out, like John, who lives in Buea.
John has been living with HIV for about eleven years now. He owns a metal workshop that has let him build a house and provide for his family. Some months after he was diagnosed with HIV, John made monthly trips to Yaoundé for two years, to consult with the clinic. According to John, he was told he will be cured of his infection in six months. "I used to spend roughly $160 a month because I had to travel from Buea to Yaoundé, pay for lodging, $20 for consultation every time I went to the clinic and $60 for the vaccine." After two years of VAHNIVAX, John says his condition only worsened. He was restarted on ARVs, which at the time cost $6 a month, an amount John says he could conveniently afford.
Most of the science community agrees that no one has found a cure for HIV yet, even though the search continues. Nearly all scientists and medical doctors also agree that the only sure way to control HIV today is by antiretroviral treatment, which is given to people living with HIV in Cameroon for free, since 2007. Consequently, most medical doctors who handle HIV and AIDS cases in Cameroon have denounced VANHIVAX as fake. In response to these accusations, a clinic representative says “we have evidence to show what we have done and what we are doing and anybody interested in constructive criticism should come over the clinic and we will show them the results.” Today, the clinic is following about eight thousand patients.
There are an estimated six hundred and ten thousand people living with HIV in Cameroon, with about half of that number on antiretroviral treatment. Lydia and John are just two in thousands of those who have consulted prophets, herbalists or contrarian doctors in search of a cure. Most of the time, antiretroviral treatment is abandoned for whatever medicine is given to them.
The consequences of defaulting on antiretroviral treatment are usually deadly. The head of the HIV treatment centre at the Limbe Regional Hospital says, "If you stop your treatment and then come back to it sometime later, the chances that that treatment will work are very low." He says he has lost some of patients who defaulted HIV treatment after consulting herbalists, prophets or some other person swearing to cure them.
Lydia says one of her friends died that way, after consulting a traditional doctor in Kumba who claimed he could cure HIV in three months. "When the man is treating you, you don’t have to take any other treatment," Lydia says. "I knew that only through the faith that my friend had in that man’s medicine, she could have been healed, but the medicine did her nothing. By the time she went to the hospital, her CD4 count was three." According to Lydia, her friend never really recovered and died a short time later.
Lydia and John say for all the years they’ve interacted with people living with HIV, they have never ever come across anyone who has been cured. "I know about twenty associations of people living with HIV in Cameroon," says John. "We have a network, we exchange ideas and I have never met anyone who said 'I was HIV positive and now I am HIV negative.'" A doctor who has worked with people living with HIV for over ten years says, “For the more than ten years that I have worked as coordinator of a treatment centre, that I have managed HIV and AIDS cases, I’ve not come across a single case that was confirmed positive and was healed through prayers or traditional medicine"
The doctor says the fact that people continue to seek out those who claim to cure HIV shows a breakdown in the system. "I think it is a major disaster," he says. "It is certainly indicative of failure on our part, failure on the part of the administration. Failure on our part because when we counsel patients, we let them understand that they should not, for any reason, stop their treatment... no one has ever stopped anybody from praying, but pray that God should bless your drugs to be the best drugs for you, and that while we are looking for something that will become a cure tomorrow, you should be able to take something today that will sustain you."
Lydia advices other people living with HIV to trust hospitals and antiretroviral treatment. "When you are sick, first go to the hospital," she says. "The hospital medicine will treat you. Forget about traditional doctors."
John, on his part, is asking HIV positive people to stop looking for miracle cures. "People are too much in the quest for cure," he says. "When you are too much in the quest for cure, you’ll definitely fall in the hands of charlatans."
By Helen Ngoh, CRTV Buea