Fall of the doctor who said his vitamins would cure Aids
Promoter of nutritional pills drops libel action against Guardian
Video: Click here
Sarah Boseley, health editor
The Guardian, Saturday September 13 2008
How vitamin entrepreneur Matthias Rath persuaded South African Aids patients to stop taking their prescribed drugs – and use his vitamins – with terrible consequences Link to this video
Matthias Rath, the vitamin campaigner accused of endangering thousands of lives in South Africa by promoting his pills while denouncing conventional medicines as toxic and dangerous, has dropped a year-long libel action against the Guardian and been ordered to pay costs.
Rath sued over three Guardian articles that condemned his promotional activities among Aids sufferers in South African townships.
A qualified doctor who is thought to have made millions selling nutritional supplements around the globe through his website empire, Rath claimed his pills could reverse the course of Aids and distributed them free in South Africa, where campaigners, who have won a hard-fought battle to persuade the government to roll out free Aids drugs to keep millions alive, believe Rath’s activities led to deaths.
The Dr Rath Foundation focuses its promotional activities on eight countries – the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, France and Russia – claiming that his micronutrient products will cure not just Aids, but cancer, heart disease, strokes and other illnesses.
The collapse of the case will have repercussions around the world. International authorities on Aids welcomed the outcome. Prof Brian Gazzard, one of the UK’s leading HIV/Aids experts, who advised the Guardian on its case, said he was delighted at the result. "The widespread provision of anti-retrovirals in sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most important public health measures of this century," he said. The confusion caused by suggestions that giving undernourished people vitamins and minerals was an alternative to taking Aids drugs was "extremely harmful".
Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill Aids centre in Montreal, said: "It is clear that he [Rath] has done enormous harm to people with HIV." Rath was linked to the Aids deniers who convinced people, he said, that Aids was not dangerous and that "you can treat yourself with medicines that are a complete waste of time".
John Moore, professor of microbiology and immunobiology at Cornell University in the United States, said: "The promotion of micronutrients and vitamin pills as effective remedies for HIV harms infected people. If they stop taking the anti-retroviral drugs that we are know are effective, their health suffers."
After the high court awarded initial costs of £220,000 to the Guardian, its editor, Alan Rusbridger, said: "We are very glad that Rath has dropped his libel action, doubtless designed to discourage other journalists – in Britain and abroad – from looking too closely at his dubious claims and methods. We will seek to recover the costs of defending our journalism."
The Guardian articles appeared in January and February last year in the Bad Science column written by Ben Goldacre, who said Rath "aggressively sells his message to Aids victims in South Africa that Rath vitamin pills are better than medication".
Goldacre praised Zackie Achmat, founder of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in South Africa, for winning his long-running battle with the government for the distribution of free Aids drugs. This victory, said one of the articles, was deeply damaging to Rath and his colleague Anthony Brink, a barrister and former spokesman for Rath’s organisation who actively campaigns against anti-retroviral drugs.
Rath wanted to exclude from the court’s consideration part of one of Goldacre’s articles, which mentioned Brink’s attempt to have Achmat indicted for genocide at the international criminal court in The Hague. In February, Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that the entire article must be considered. Had the case proceeded, the court would have been presented with details of Brink’s complaint to The Hague, which called for Achmat to be permanently confined "in a small white and concrete cage, bright fluorescent light on all the time to keep an eye on him" and force-fed his Aids drugs or, "if he bites, kicks and screams too much, dripped into his arm after he’s been restrained on a gurney with cable tied around his ankles, wrists and neck". The complaint was described by the Rath Foundation in January last year as "entirely valid and long overdue".
Rath, who describes himself as German-born though is also listed as Dutch in Companies House documents, began operating in South Africa in 2004.
In a pattern that has been repeated in other countries, he began by running newspaper adverts attacking the pharmaceutical industry and promoting natural remedies for diseases. Eventually he was stopped by the South African advertising standards authority for making unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of vitamins in the treatment of Aids.
In 2005, Rath began to offer his nutritional supplement VitaCell to people with Aids in Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town. He claims he was running a trial, that participants were suffering from advanced Aids and that none were on or had been on anti-retroviral drugs. Some died, however, and relatives have given statements claiming that some of them had been on ARVs but were told to stop using them.
In June this year, TAC won a ruling from the high court that the trial was illegal. VitaCell was being promoted as a medicine, the court said, and therefore it needed permission. The court also ruled that the South African government had breached the law by not clamping down on unlicensed remedies. Rath has been given permission to appeal against this ruling.
The Rath Foundation recently expanded its reach into Russia, where Aids has been on the increase. In an advertisement in Izvestia in February, Rath attacked the pharmaceutical industry and suggested that heart attacks, strokes and cancers could be cut to a fraction of the present level through "natural health approaches".