A VIETNAMESE herbalist who gained worldwide acclaim for inventing a "miracle" cure for heroin addiction may have covered up the deaths of up to six patients in his care.
Health officials in Hanoi have evidence that a clinic run by Tran Khuong Dan bribed at least one family to bury their son's body without informing the authorities.
United Nations sources in New York - who have launched costly trials on the "cure" - told The Independent yesterday that they believe more cases are being investigated, yet testing on the drug is likely to continue.
Mr Dan sprang to worldwide prominence last November when his secret formula, called Heantos, attracted the attention of the world's media. A former construction worker and herbalist, Mr Dan claimed he deliberately became an opium addict to see whether he could find a natural way to detoxify himself.
After travelling from village to village in the highlands of Vietnam, he put together a secret concoction made up of 13 plants which appeared to help some addicts kick their habit.
Although no formal evaluation had been undertaken, visiting American politicians brought the treatment to Bill Clinton's attention. Pressure was brought to bear upon specialists in addiction to investigate and the UN Development Programme reportedly allocated pounds 240,000 to the project, with a possible pounds 2.4m to follow.
Now, however, Mr Dan's activities have been branded illegal in Vietnam - because Heantos is untested and unlicensed - and there is a split within the UN on whether to proceed with trials.
In an interview with The Youth newspaper in Vietnam, Nguyen Hun Lam, vice-chairman of the Vietnamese ministry of health's drug control committee, said stocks of Heantos "illegally" produced by Mr Dan and several partners had been seized.
More disturbingly, he added: "This illegal operation led to a serious consequence causing death to [a patient] on 30 July 1997 during treatment at the Heantos Detoxification Centre. The centre management negotiated with the victim's family and offered to provide 15 million Vietnamese dong [approximately pounds 1,500] for the family to bring the body to the village for burial without reporting the case to the local administration and relevant authorities."
There is a row between officials at the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which wants to proceed with tests on Heantos, and the UN Drug Control Programme, which is sceptical. It is understood the UNDP is refusing to pass on details of the Heantos formula to the Drug Control Programme.
"We can't say whether this thing works or not because there have been no formal tests and no follow-up work to see whether the addicts are still off their drugs," a UN source said. "We are hearing from Vietnam that there might have been as many as six deaths that had gone unreported."
Some experts suspect Heantos may contain kratom, a plant from Thailand and Vietnam which, when chewed, acts on the same brain receptors as heroin. "If that is the case, then this isn't a cure, it's a substitute and it would be no better than the methadone we give people now," said the source.
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