Sunday, 26 August 2012

Dear Minister

(An open letter to the Ministers of Health and Justice, Defence and Security.)

The health of our families, friends, colleagues and neighbours is under threat. Not from disease and illness but, ironically, from people claiming to be able to cure us of disease and illness.

You will have seen the advertisements in certain local newspapers (but I feel obliged to point out never Mmegi) advertising a vast array of pseudo-medical products and services. While some are clearly ridiculous, in particular those offering “enlargement” and “tightening”, many others are far more dangerous, offering treatments and cures for fertility problems, pregnancy problems and in one I saw, “complicated diseases”. I have even seen advertisements where the “healer” claims to be able to cure diseases that are “otherwise incurable”. Others specifically offered treatments for diabetes, epilepsy and cancer. Of course, those that are most concerning are those that hint at treatments and cures for “immune” problems. It’s quite clear who these adverts are aimed at.

Clearly these advertisers aren’t all fools. Most are clever enough not to put too much in writing, making no more than vague promises in print and reserving their more scandalous claims for later. I recently sent a text message to one advertiser who offered treatments for “immune problems”. He responded saying that he had “received stock for hiv herbal medicine” that was “herbals from china for hiv”. When I asked him to confirm this he told me by text message that “It does cure but it does help to boast the immune system. its realy effective in many other ways”. (I haven’t corrected the spelling.)

Later they offered to email me more details about these medicines. Using the email address “” they told me that these “Babao Relife Capsules” come in bottles of 100 and that 4 bottles would last a month. Each bottle costs P560, a monthly total of P2,240, an annual cost of almost P27,000.

These claims clearly breach a variety of the Consumer Protection Regulations but that’s unimportant compared to the other offences they are committing.

This is all illegal. It breaches Sections 396-399 of the Penal Code which forbid “prohibited advertisements” for any medicine or treatment for conditions including “venereal diseases”, cancer, diabetes, TB and a host of others.

Also I suspect that by offering what clearly are medical services without, I presume, registration they are breaching the Botswana Health Professions Act.

Fundamentally, these “Babao Relife Capsules” are a fraud. There is precisely no evidence that they have any effect, other than making desperate people poor and disappointed. They also undermine the serious progress that our nation has made in prolonging life and protecting people from HIV infection. They pose a danger to our national health. Action to protect our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours is required.

It’s not just amongst the traditional healer community that charlatans can be found. We also need protection from the other quacks that are out there, the more mainstream ones. The list of professions covered by the Health Professionals Council includes Clinical Psychologists and Dieticians but what about the array of people calling themselves “nutritionists”, “therapists” and “alternative practitioners”. None of these semi-professional terms are included in the Botswana Health Professions Act. Any of us can set ourselves up as professionals in these “fields”, deliver services and take people’s money away from them. Nobody would regulate us.

The same goes for the charlatans promoting a variety of so-called “alternative” therapies, including reflexology, homeopathy, acupuncture, energy “therapies” like Reiki and the bizarre machines with strange names like SCIO and QXCI. All of these bogus techniques claim to have miraculous effects but there is a simple fact that cannot be overlooked.

Not one of them works.

None of them are scientifically plausible, they’re logically laughable and not one of them is backed up by any evidence whatsoever, not one of them. Nevertheless they abound, most of them coming across the border from South Africa to take money from us under false pretenses. Some people, usually the “practitioners” themselves will hide behind the defense that they do no harm. I disagree. I think they do harm us.

Despite many challenges, mostly our geography, we have achieved remarkable things. Given our size and population distribution our healthcare system is remarkable. I’m not suggesting that it’s perfect but what has been achieved is impressive. These purveyors of nonsense threaten our achievements. If they distract just one person with AIDS from taking their ARVs, one person with a heart condition from taking their proven medication or one depressed person from seeking professional psychological assistance then these charlatans have blood on their hands.

Unfortunately there aren’t many of us who don’t know someone who tragically died because of their involvement in these bogus treatments. I know of two people who died as a direct result of consulting Bus Rank healers. I know of one person who tried to treat her cancer with alternative therapies, luckily realised in time that she needed real medical help and survived, but only just. I know of people who throw vast amounts of money in the direction of energy medicine healers with useless boxes of technology they claim will balance the victims, sorry, patient’s energy levels. One day they might choose that instead of seeing a real doctor.

Minister, I believe the time has come to put aside courtesy and restraint and become much more aggressive. We need you to step in and exercise the powers you have been given to stop this abuse and to protect our people. Before it’s too late.

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