The highlight of this week has been the news that Matthias Rath has folded in his attempt to sue Ben Goldacre and the Guardian. Rath will end up paying about half a million pounds for his attempt to silence and harass his critics. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving man.
Matthias Rath is a modern day Lysenko. Trofim Lysenko was the Russian peasant who worked his way up through the Soviet hierarchy, twisting science to suit the ears of Stalin. He rejected Mendelian genetics and denounced it as a capitalist plot. Any scientist who criticised this nonsense met with severe treatment, imprisonment and death. Soviet science was held back for decades under his influence. Chairman Mao adopted his agricultural theories in the cultural revolution resulting in the starvation of millions.
Today, we have the South African government rejecting science when it comes to the biggest crisis they face. AIDS is causing havoc in Southern Africa – killing hundreds of thousands, and needlessly. We now know how to manage the illness so that is essentially, no longer becomes life-threatening. But it has been a struggle for South Africans to get hold of the drugs they need to survive.
The heroes here are the Treatment Action Campaign, a charity set up by Zachie Achmat to raise awareness of HIV in South Africa and to make treatment available to all. Achmat said he would not take ARV drugs until they were available to all. One of the first acts of TAC was to assist the government in clearing the way for the distribution of generic drugs despite opposition from the pharmaceutical industry. The government quickly turned its back on TAC though and refused to distribute the medication, instead adopting fringe AIDS -denialist theories, and supporting quack ‘cures’ for he disease. In echoes of Stalin’s support for Lysenko, Mbeki, the president, and his government promoted the view that AIDS was a conspiracy of ‘Western’ interests and racism. Throughout Africa, similar themes were adopted where being an AIDS-denialist was part of the package you took for opposing ‘colonialism’ as represented by ‘western science’ and drug companies.
In this climate, in walks Matthias Rath, a German vitamin salesman. Rath proclaimed that,
Never before in the history of mankind was a greater crime committed than the genocide organized by the pharmaceutical drug cartel in the interest of the multibillion-dollar investment business with disease. Hundreds of millions of people have died unnecessarily from AIDS, cancer, heart disease and other preventable diseases and the only reason that these epidemics are still haunting mankind is that they are the multibillion-dollar marketplace for the pharmaceutical drug cartel.
Rath treads a well worn quack path. He plays to the inherent distrust we have of pharmaceutical companies and then makes the leap that their drugs are dangerous and ineffective and that his own ‘cures’ are the answer. He plays to the nationalistic views that there is a colonial conspiracy to kill Africans and then promotes his own vitamin pills as the answer. He ran newspaper adverts in South Africa telling people that ARVs were ‘poison’ and to urge people with HIV to take his ‘natural’ vitamin pills. His venom spewed at the Treatment Action Campaign is appalling.
Rath has been conducting ‘trials’ in South Africa illegally. The government at best, turned a blind eye and at worst encouraged him. The South African Medicines Control Council (MCC) and the Treatment Action Campaign had to take their own government to court to prevent the Rath Foundation from promoting its quackery and to force the government to uphold its own laws. TAC quite rightly call Rath the ‘definitive charlatan’.
Ben Goldacre had been documenting the horrors in South Africa in the Guardian. Rath decided to sue. The result has been that the Guardian has been unable to discuss the calamities in South Africa for about a year now. Rath had managed to effectively silence one of his chief critics. One can speculate that Rath thought that the Guardian would not defend one of their non-staff minor columnists, but to their credit, they did. Rath has failed and he now faces a mammoth legal bill. The Guardian’s bill was £500,000. His own must have been similar.
Using the law to silence critics is a typical cowardly quacks trick. I have been at the end of legal threats myself when I pointed out that the Society of Homeopaths were failing to uphold their own regulations by not condemning their own members who were peddling AIDS quackery in South Africa. The British Chiropractic Association is currently suing science writer Simon Singh for daring to suggest that their evidence base for their bone crunching is shockingly poor. One can hope that this case will be a warning shot for other quacks who wish to use the law to silence people. I have had my fair share. Fighting in the courts is not easy for all. But there are ways of dealing with it, but it is not pretty. There is one quack who has threatened me who is in for a nasty shock soon. People in glass houses…
South Africa has become the playground of every quack wanting to make their mark. It is causing enormous problems for activists on the ground. There are many dedicated people in South Africa struggling to pump sense into their own government. Our western soft headed approach to alternative medicine is at the root of this insanity. It provides the ‘intellectual’ back drop for nonsense views to take hold. This is not fun and games – people are dying because of it. The University of Cape Town estimates that 340,000 deaths could have been prevented if the government had not been enthralled by quack alternatives. In reporting Jeanette Winterson’s misrepresentation of AIDS activist and South African Supreme Court of Appeal Justice, Edwin Cameron’s views on homeopathy, I quoted Yusef Azad, Director of Policy and Campaigns for the National AIDS Trust. His words are worth repeating.
The tragedy is that there are still far too many governments not funding the treatment properly, and too many people with HIV who have not been informed of its benefits. Quack cures abound of course, all unproven, all cruelly deceiving, all a massive distraction from what we know genuinely works.
Every supporter of alternative medicine in the UK has a little guilty role to play in this tragedy. By using the same arguments as Rath, such as the evils of drugs and the naturalness of vitamins, you are responsible for the deaths of real live people. Alternative medicine is not just the idle plaything of the middle classes from Islington. It matters. And when our Universities teach it as if it was science, and our hospitals offer it as if it was medicine, then charlatans are able to use this as justification for their own self-interest.
Rose Shapiro in her recent book Suckers described how alternative medicine makes fools of us all. It is worse than that, it makes us all genocidal.