Leading article: Resist this medical obscurantism

Tuesday 03 May 2011 00:00 BST

An anti-scientific approach to the treatment of HIV has long been a scourge in Africa.

The questioning of the link between AIDS and HIV by the former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, did huge damage to the public information campaign designed to bring down that country's appalling infection rate. The advocacy by the former South African health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, of "natural" treatments for the virus (ranging from beetroot to wild garlic) was similarly damaging. According to a study by Harvard University, their combined resistance to the scientific consensus on HIV and their failure to push the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs might have resulted in the needless deaths of some 300,000 people.

Given that history, it is disturbing to learn, thanks to an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, that British charities are funding an African organisation that is pushing an equally unscientific approach to treatment of HIV: homeopathy. The Abha Light Foundation in Kenya is suggesting to its HIV positive patients that homeopathic medicines – which are regarded as placebos by the British Medical Association – are a suitable alternative to anti-retroviral drugs.

The giant Global Fund, which usually chooses its local partners carefully, says that it did not know that it was indirectly funding a group that was pushing homeopathy. But that is not the case with another donor, the Sheaf Trust, which describes its mission as "training homeopaths in Africa". If people in the West want to waste their money on homeopathic remedies for minor ailments that is a matter for them. But when charities are raising money in Britain to push these quack medicines on desperately sick people in Africa, that becomes another matter entirely. This is a surely a subject worthy of investigation by the Charity Commission and the House of Commons Health Committee.

We have witnessed the terrible toll that medical obscurantism can inflict in the developing world. It would be an outrage if we sat back while British charities played a role in causing history to repeat itself.

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