(Jollofnews) — Like any other practitioner of homoeopathy, President Yahyah Jammeh of Gambia knows that not everyone believes it works.
He does, however, have one advantage over the likes of the Prince of Wales and other fans of “alternative medicine”: when he speaks, few people dare to challenge him.
The dictator of the tiny West African state has defied medical opinion since 2007, when he claimed to have discovered a herbal cure for HIV-Aids. Now, the man sometimes compared to Papa Doc Duvalier, Haiti’s voodoo-practising despot, has finally found some allies in the West – a British homoeopathic group sponsored by the official suppliers of homoeopathic medicine to the Royal family.
The president has given VIP treatment to the Gambia Wellness Foundation, a London-based charity, allowing it to set up a clinical practice in the country’s interior. Its volunteers now live in a grace-and-favour house that belonged to one of Mr Jammeh’s ex-wives and have even appeared on Gambian TV chatshows. Since setting up there five years ago, the GWF’s mainly British volunteers have “treated” tens of thousands of people, suffering everything from malaria and dysentery to snake bites and rape trauma.
The venture’s advertised backers include Ainsworths, whose shop near London’s Harley Street has a royal seal of appointment from Prince Charles and the Queen. But the charity’s activities have alarmed mainstream medics, who point out that homoeopathy offers at best only placebo benefits. They say the risks are worse in a developing nation, where patients may have little basic health care to fall back on.
“These people should be prosecuted,” said Prof David Colquhoun, a pharmacology expert at University College, London, and a prominent critic of homoeopathic claims. “These are serious and treatable conditions and people should not be distracting from the efforts to improve things by giving people worthless remedies.” Amnesty International accuses Mr Jammeh of jailing members of the opposition and shutting down their newspapers. In 2012, he caused an international outcry by having nine prisoners on death row executed by firing squad.
The president replies to critics with volleys of anti-colonial rhetoric. In 2013, he pulled Gambia out of the Commonwealth, denouncing it as a “neo-colonial institution”. Last May, he scrapped English as an official language. Mr Jammeh has, however, given red carpet treatment to the GWF, at least one of whose trustees shares his anti-Western worldview.
Paul Randle-Joliffe, an Islington-based activist and member of the Occupy London movement, is a lay advocate and self-described “middle-class free thinker”. Now based permanently in Gambia, he is said to be working as a political adviser to the president. Another trustee is Marcus Fernandez, who set up the Healthy Living Centre in Islington and is now principal of the Centre for Homoeopathic Education in London’s West End. It is Britain’s largest homoeopathic school and runs an honours degree in homoeopathy validated by Middlesex University.
The GWF was established by Sameena Azam, a former graduate of the centre, who got the idea to go to Gambia from a patient in Britain. The venture started under the name the Bush Homoeopaths, but changed its branding to avoid any association with President George W Bush. “People were asking us to come to their villages, and by the time we came to the attention of Gambia’s ministry of health, we had already treated about 10,000 people,” said Ms Azam. “President Jammeh seems happy, and has told us to keep up the good work.” While acknowledging that the group may be well-intentioned, Prof Colquhoun was sceptical of the claims about its treatment programme. In one Bush Homoeopath blog, a product called Sulphur 30C, used to treat skin ailments, was given to a child who had swallowed bleach. “On our next visit, the parents came to see us to specifically thank us for saving their child’s life,” the blog claimed. “Sulphur 30C contains no sulphur, and even if it did, it would not be the slightest help for bleach poisoning,” said Prof Colquhoun.
In another, a child who had been badly burned after falling into a cauldron of boiling porridge was treated with “Opium 200C and a combination of burn remedies”. Prof Colquhoun said: “It’s criminal nonsense to suggest that this would help the burns or the pain. It contains no opium whatsoever.”
In a third case, the blog talked of a 16-year-old girl who had suffered a “stroke” and become mute as a result of being raped and made pregnant. The group prescribed two herbal remedies: “Narayani Shock Mix 26”, which is for easing trauma, and Staphysagria 200C, based on a plant used by ancient Greeks as a bowel-cleansing agent. “The next time we saw her, she was smiling very happily,” the blog said. “Poor girl,” said Prof Colquhoun. “This would have done nothing to help her.”
Neither the Centre for Homoeopathic Education nor Ainsworths would comment on the GWF’s activities. Ainsworths did, however, confirm that two of its own staff had attended a Bush Homoeopaths fundraiser in 2013 and prepared the charity some “general first-aid remedies”. “Ainsworths do not support this organisation,” said Carole Gregory Pinkus, an Ainsworths director. “We are immediately taking steps to have our name removed forthwith [from its website].”
Ms Azam defended the GWF’s work, insisting that it used homoeopathy as part of “integrated care”. “If people need an operation or drugs as well, so be it,” she said. “If we deal with patients showing symptoms of malaria, for example, we tell them to get tested as well. It is also about providing counselling and psychological help.” However, last week, a study by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council added yet more weight to the view that homoeopathy is not effective. After reviewing 225 different research papers on homoeopathy, it concluded there were “no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homoeopathy is effective”.
It warned: “People who choose homoeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness.”
That concern has been voiced about Mr Jammeh’s HIV clinic, which requires patients to give up normal anti-retroviral treatments for up to a year. Hundreds of Gambians have now been treated by the clinic, and paraded on television after being “cured”. Mr Jammeh has declined requests to disclose either the ingredients of his secret “cure” or details of his clinic’s success rate. Both Mr Randle-Joliffe and Ms Azam, however, appear to think it may work.
“I visited the president’s clinic after getting a touch of ‘Banjul Belly’,” said Mr Randle-Joliffe. “I was given a herbal remedy and in 10 minutes the pain was gone. It is possible that he has invented a cure for HIV – I have seen a video of people claiming to have been cured by him.” Mr Randle-Joliffe denied being an adviser to Mr Jammeh. He did, however, defend the president’s human rights record. “It’s a damned sight better than Britain’s. I feel safer living here than in the UK, where hundreds die in custody every year and nobody gets prosecuted.”