South Africa’s most influential activist group took prominent AIDS “dissident” Matthias Rath to court on Friday to stop a campaign to vilify the group and discredit AIDS drugs.
“The lies that the Rath Foundation is spreading are a complete fabrication,” Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) chairman Zackie Achmat, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last year, told hundreds of rowdy supporters.
Police intervened to keep order outside the Cape Town High Court as noisy protests and clashes by supporters and opponents of HIV/AIDS drugs nearly brought proceedings to a halt.
TAC supporters and South Africa’s Traditional Healers’ Organisation, which has joined the case to back Rath, clashed but there were no reports of injuries or arrests.
The court adjourned at one point as Judge Siraj Desai urged the group’s leaders to calm their members.
The Rath Foundation, headed by the German doctor, claimed in paid advertisements in international newspapers and in pamphlets distributed in South Africa’s poor townships that antiretroviral drugs are poisons, and trumpeted vitamins and nutrition in the fight against the AIDS pandemic.
The foundation also says the TAC is the “stormtrooper” of the pharmaceutical industry and has coerced President Thabo Mbeki’s government to spend billions of dollars on what it calls dangerous medicines.
South Africa is the country hardest hit by the disease with one in nine of its 45 million population estimated to carry the HIV virus that causes AIDS. Only about 42,000 of them are now receiving publicly funded drugs.
The TAC fought a long battle with the South African government for antiretrovirals to be offered free in the public health sector. The group fears desperately sick people are turning their backs on medicines that could prolong their lives because of Rath’s claims. TAC is suing the Rath Foundation for alleged defamation and what it says are lies about life-prolonging AIDS drugs.
Rath accuses the United States, Britain, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation of a conspiracy to promote expensive medicines on behalf of a “drugs cartel”.
The Rath Foundation says vitamins and nutrition are an effective and safe treatment for AIDS without the side effects of antiretrovirals. It says groups with links to drug companies were engaged in a slander campaign against Rath and his research into vitamins and AIDS.
Rath, who made a surprise appearance in court on Friday, told reporters a four-week vitamin programme on 18 patients in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township had shown remarkable results with those treated experiencing a reversal of symptoms.
He also said the foundation had not sold any vitamins in South Africa and would offer them free to the government.
Revision date: July 5, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD