In the shadow of one man's AIDS 'vaccine'

In the shadow of one man's AIDS 'vaccine'

By Levi Obijiofor

I HAVE just finished reading a United Nations (UN) report on the state of HIV-AIDS in the world. The report contained a mix of good news and bad news. The good news is that the virus is claiming fewer lives than it did in the last decade of the 20th century. One other good news is that anti-retroviral medication is reaching more patients than was the case in the past. But not all infected persons in all parts of the world are accessing the medication for various reasons.

In terms of hard statistics, the UN report noted a marginal reduction in deaths linked to AIDS -- from 2.2 million people in 2005 to two million people in 2007.As far as Africa is concerned, the picture is again a mix of hope and despair. The UN report said the number of people being diagnosed with HIV-AIDS has decreased in Rwanda and Zimbabwe, thanks to what the report perceives as modifications in sexual practices.

So far in the global fight against HIV-AIDS, there are no vaccines and there is no cure but the medical world has made good progress through the development of anti-retroviral drugs that help to slow the spread of the virus and to prolong the lives of people infected with AIDS. The realisation that medical science is yet to discover a cure or vaccine for the treatment of the HIV-AIDS virus more than 20 years since the disease was detected compelled me to reflect on how a Nigerian man named Dr. Jeremiah Abalaka stunned the medical world when he claimed to have discovered a vaccine for the treatment of HIV-AIDS.

In 1999, exactly nine years ago, Jeremiah Abalaka caused ripples in Nigeria's medical fraternity and indeed in other parts of the world when he announced the discovery of a vaccine for treating the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) and its full-scale form - the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). No one had heard of the man prior to his sudden emergence and his proclamation about the prophylactic drug that he claimed could be used to treat HIV and AIDS.

In the medical profession, it is not enough to make claims about groundbreaking discoveries relating to new drugs for the treatment of certain diseases. The claimant must provide full-proof evidence of the scientific processes adopted in the research and the clinical tests that yielded the vaccine. If any of the essential elements of scientific research was found to be dodgy, the new age inventor such as Abalaka would expect to be grilled by his peers.

The hype and theatre surrounding Abalaka's claims about his anti-AIDS vaccine may have subsided but it is still relevant to ask a few questions. Where is Abalaka nine years after he claimed he had discovered a vaccine for the treatment of HIV-AIDS virus? If the vaccine was as effective as claimed, why is the world still searching for a vaccine nearly a decade after Abalaka announced he had found one? Why is no one talking about Abalaka today? Why are HIV-AIDS patients around the world not flocking to Nigeria to get a shot of Abalaka's vaccine? If Abalaka found a genuine vaccine for the treatment of HIV-AIDS virus, why do we still have people being diagnosed with HIV-AIDS in Nigeria? Why are beneficiaries of that vaccine not advertising - by verbal means - the vaccine and its founder?

When he announced the discovery of this magical vaccine for the treatment of HIV and AIDS patients, Abalaka did not win the support of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and indeed the support of many Nigerians. Naturally, he was irritated that rather than be recognised and presented with a national award, he was pummeled with embarrassing questions everywhere he went. Riled by growing cynicism about his claims, Abalaka became impatient, sometimes reclusive and most times unwilling to allow members of the NMA to conduct an inquest into his vaccine. Abalaka made the fundamental mistake of perceiving everyone who asked questions about his so-called vaccine as an enemy.

Throughout the period of the controversy, Abalaka was as combative as he was unhelpful in his own cause. Those who wanted to see the man provide proof or evidence to support the veracity of the so-called vaccine were starved of basic information. It might be true that prophets are not easily recognised in their home turf but Abalaka was one prophet whom his professional colleagues were wiling to give the benefit of the doubt but only if he could provide more information about his vaccine and the processes that led to the discovery.

At the time when he appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Health, Abalaka used colourful language that did not win him friends when he said: "The health of my patients as a doctor is my first consideration. Even if my vaccine is made from stone, it should be accepted because it is safe and efficacious. The vaccine is purely African-innovative-black-monkey thinking."

Abalaka spoke like a man in a hurry. He wanted quick national and worldwide recognition for his HIV-AIDS vaccine. But he forgot that, in medical science, landmark discoveries are not accepted instantaneously. A breakthrough in the fight against HIV-AIDS virus must be tested meticulously and continuously in order to establish the authenticity of the results. In matters that involve human lives, it is best to be cautious.

There are valid reasons why an announcement about the discovery of a vaccine for the treatment of HIV-AIDS should be viewed with suspicion. There is a convention in the scientific community for researchers to follow rigid and verifiable research procedures and standards. Research results that fall short of the basic scientific procedures are normally regarded as bogus and capricious. In Abalaka's case, he did not provide his critics with verifiable information about his research procedures and the nature of the tests he conducted.

It is easy to understand why questions should be fired at one man because of the extraordinary claims about the discovery of a vaccine in a developing country where major hospitals lack the most basic of equipment and medicines. Since the discovery of the AIDS virus in 1981, the disease still poses a major health problem for governments, scientists and medical practitioners. The AIDS virus is no respecter of gender, age, ethnicity, religious affiliation and social status. The rich and famous are hit by the virus as are the poor and the weak.

In its early days and even up till now, western scientists and general population hold the view that the virus is more prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa and most of the developing parts of the world because of "weird" sexual practices, in particular the promiscuous lifestyle in societies where young men tend to evaluate their physical prowess by the number of female partners they sleep with.

In Africa, there are official and unofficial views on the origins and causes of HIV-AIDS. For example, South African President Thabo Mbeki likes to associate poverty with the epidemic known as HIV-AIDS. While poverty can contribute to low quality of life and the onset of diseases among poor people in Sub-Saharan Africa, the view that poverty alone causes AIDS is still highly contested. If poverty is the source of AIDS, why didn't the world experience AIDS right from the time poverty became a feature of human existence?

Other Africans believe that the AIDS virus was introduced into the world through weird sexual practices and alternative lifestyles that are more common in some parts of the world. Whichever view you subscribe to, the point is that the world has moved beyond the blame game (from "Africa caused it" to "AIDS is a western disease") during which time attention was devoted to the origins of the virus and who should be held accountable. The battle to find a cure for the deadly virus is more urgent now than ever before.

If Abalaka has the potent vaccine that can cure AIDS, he should stand up now to be counted. The world has waited for too long. He should convince the National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and most importantly the World Health Organisation (WHO) that he has satisfied all the conditions and standards required for the production of HIV/AIDS vaccines.