UK vitamin pills sold as Aids cure in Uganda

Jeremy Laurance confronts a doctor making a killing
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A vitamin supplement manufactured in Britain is being exported to Uganda where it is being sold as a cure for Aids at the cost of a year's salary for three months supply.

The supplement, called Mariandina, is a combination of vitamins, herbal extracts and micronutrients, and is shortly to be advertised on the Internet, making it available around the world. It is sold by Professor Charles Ssali, a UK-trained doctor and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh who runs an Aids clinic in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Professor Ssali claims that the supplement can cure Aids in the same way that oranges cured scurvy in the 18th century.

More than 15,000 Aids victims have been treated with the supplement which comes in three formulations A, B and J and costs $80 (pounds 48) a month. The annual average income in Uganda is $270. Mariandina is made by Pharmadass Ltd, of Greenford, Middlesex, a company supplying vitamins, health food supplements and natural cosmetics to pharmacies and health food stores in Britain. It is made exclusively for Professor Ssali, to a recipe supplied by him, but is not sold in the UK.

Amant Patel, general manager of Pharmadass, said: "Professor Ssali came to us and asked if we could manufacture a capsule containing all the ingredients he suggested. We agreed to make it for him. There are many ingredients and they come from all over the world. It is quite a technical formulation." He said he could not disclose its composition or cost .

The National Drugs Authority in Uganda banned Mariandina last January saying that patients were being duped into buying a worthless treatment which left them impoverished and unable to buy food. However, the ban was lifted in May after protests from patients and MPs. One local journalist observed: "It offered a little hope to some people so the politicians said why not let it go ahead."

Contacted at his clinic in Kampala on Friday, Professor Ssali said he had developed Mariandina in Britain after reading about the 18th century discovery of the cure for scurvy - vitamin C. "That brought me to the view that anti-oxidants [vitamins] which boost the immune system could provide a cure for Aids. Scurvy is a miniature form of Aids," he said.

He began treating Aids patients in 1989. Some had died because they could not afford the full dose, he said, but those who had persisted with it were doing very well. "What they say about me is pure propaganda," he said. "I have not made large profits."

He said he had taken out a loan of $75,000 to buy supplies of the supplement and made a 20 per cent margin to cover his expenses. Mariandina would be offered via the Internet from next month to anyone who wanted it anywhere in the world. "I have been barred from many medical journals so people will be able to see my work on the Internet and judge what I have to offer."

The World Health Organisation is investigating ways of controlling illegal advertising of medicines on the Internet. A UK health department spokeswoman admitted there was no legal means of preventing a company manufacturing and exporting a product to another country.

Inside Ssali's clinic

I visited Professor Ssali's clinic, a large converted house on the Kira road outside Kampala, last October. A foetid smell hung in the air of the gloomy ground floor. About half a dozen desperately ill patients, with the emaciated bodies and sunken eyes that are typical of the final stages of Aids, occupied two makeshift "wards" next to the consulting room. Professor Ssali invited me to sit in as he counselled two women with relatives dying of the disease.

The first was smartly dressed, one of Kampala's middle classes, who wrote out a cheque and left with two grey tubs of the bulky capsules. The second was poorer and looked worn and distressed. Her husband was very ill, she said. Professor Ssali questioned her briefly before prescribing his cure. The woman took the grey tubs and turned them over in her hands for several minutes before handing over 30,000 Uganda shillings (pounds 18). It was enough for only a few weeks supply but it was all she could afford.

Professor Ssali, who worked as a locum ear nose and throat surgeon in the UK in the 1980s, is charming, courteous and plausible, but holds highly questionable views - such as that Aids is spread chiefly by vaccination and mosquitoes, that condoms offer little protection and that he is the victim of a conspiracy keeping his news of a cure for Aids from a waiting world.

He is persuasive and he offers hope. And in the age of Aids, that is all that is necessary to make money out of desperate misfortune.