Vitamin profiteer and AIDS-denialist misleading South Africans, says WHO/UN

Theo Smart
Published: 18 April 2005

While reputable scientists discussed the links between HIV and nutrition at the WHO technical consultation in Durban (see link), the local South African media has been preoccupied by a controversy triggered by a wealthy German vitamin salesman, Matthias Rath.

Rath, an AIDS-denialist, has falsely claimed to be one of the experts participating in the WHO meeting, and that various multilateral organizations such as UNAIDS support his recommendations to treat HIV with high-dose multivitamins.

Self-promotion at the expense of the vulnerable

Over the past year, Rath has run a high-profile media campaign attacking antiretroviral therapy (ART), the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the South African Medical Control Council (MCC) and anyone else critical of him. He has used a website, adverts in local national newspapers, as well as pamphlets and posters distributed in city centres and townships in South Africa.

His campaign spreads the usual denialist misinformation that antiretrovirals are poisonous. But in addition, he selectively quotes and distorts information from scientific papers to imply that multivitamins alone can prevent AIDS.

He has suggested that the MCC was blocking access to multivitamins to people with HIV, when in fact, multivitamins are freely available to anyone testing positive for the virus through South Africa’s public health clinics. He also claims that a number of United Nations bodies including WHO, UNICEF and UNAIDS endorse his approach.

Rath’s advertisements — which are usually not labelled as such —read like news stories. TAC has grown increasing concerned that they were having some impact. TAC successfully brought a complaint against Rath to the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa, which subsequently ordered that his adverts be withdrawn from all media in South Africa.

TAC, the South African Medical Association, the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, and the minister of the Western Cape have all condemned Rath. According to TAC, “Rath's campaign undermines [the government’s ART] policy, causes public confusion and endangers lives.”

“This reprehensible behaviour is despicable considering the enormous human cost of the HIV pandemic in South Africa,' said Prof Denise White, vice-chairperson of SAMA.

Just before the WHO technical consultation in Durban, WHO, UNICEF and UNAIDS released a statement condemning “the irresponsible linking of their names to claims that vitamins and nutrition therapy alone can prevent AIDS deaths.”

“United Nations condemns irresponsible attacks on antiretroviral therapy. A recent advertising campaign is touting the benefits of vitamin therapy above antiretroviral therapy and claiming that antiretroviral therapy is toxic.

These advertisements are wrong and misleading.”

The statement notes that clinical studies investigating the potential benefits of higher than normal doses of micronutrient supplements in HIV/AIDS are inconclusive. “WHO and UNAIDS recommendations for micronutrient supplementation are therefore similar for all people whether they are infected with HIV or not.”

“Vitamins and nutritional supplements alone cannot take the place of comprehensive treatment and care for people living with HIV/AIDS, including prophylaxis and treatment for opportunistic infections and antiretroviral therapy, where indicated, as well as a good, balanced diet.”

Rath undeterred

Of course, none of this has stopped Rath’s campaign, which if anything has only grown more fervid.

So TAC has called on

  • organisations around the world with knowledge of Rath's activities to please contact them (email: info@tac.org.za and put "RATH INFORMATION" in the subject line);
  • US-based activists to urge newspapers, such as the New York Times, to stop publishing Rath's adverts;
  • The South African government to issue an unequivocal condemnation of Rath and
  • The Medicines Control Council to take action against Rath immediately.
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