S. African Treatment Action Campaign Defamation Lawsuit Against Vitamin Advocate Rath Opens Amid Protests
The South African HIV/AIDS treatment advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign's defamation lawsuit against Matthias Rath -- who advocates the use of vitamins and nutrients to treat HIV/AIDS -- began on Friday in the Cape Town High Court amid protests by supporters of each side, Reuters reports (Bell, Reuters, 5/13). TAC has asked the Cape Town High Court to issue a temporary injunction to prevent the Rath and the Dr. Rath Health Foundation from making defamatory statements about TAC. In some of his advertisements -- including full-page ads last week in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune -- Rath claims antiretroviral drugs are toxic and suggests that TAC and other groups are front organizations for the pharmaceutical industry and that the group has misled people to believe that "exorbitantly expensive and highly toxic drugs like AZT and nevirapine" can successfully treat HIV infection. TAC has encouraged the South African government to provide access to antiretroviral drugs for HIV-positive people in the country. Rath and his foundation have filed a response to TAC's request, saying that the foundation's claims about antiretrovirals are true and their criticism of TAC is allowed under the constitutional right to free expression (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/12).
TAC in court papers said, "The Rath Foundation is preying on vulnerable people with life-threatening illnesses with two aims: to sell their products and to support the HIV denialists who have caused enormous damage to our country" (News24.com, 5/14). The Rath Foundation responded, saying in court papers, "It is our view that [TAC] is abusing democratic freedoms it has in South Africa in a manner not unlike the Nazi SA in the Weimar democracy in the early '30s" (Reuters, 5/13). TAC Chair Zackie Achmat said he is "very confident" that TAC will prevail in the suit, saying, "Dr. Rath has not produced a single shred of evidence that the TAC is funded by pharmaceutical companies" (News24.com, 5/14). At the end of Friday's proceedings, the case was postponed until May 26, when further arguments will be heard (Reuters, 5/13).
Hundreds of TAC supporters had a "noisy standoff" with members of the South African Traditional Healers Organisation -- which supports Rath -- outside of the courthouse on Friday, according to the SAPA/Independent Online (SAPA/Independent Online, 5/13). Achmat was addressing a group of TAC supporters outside of the court when a group of THO members emerged from the court and were "unhappy with what Achmat was saying," according to SABC News. There was a "slight clash" between the two groups, but police intervened and separated the rival protesters, according to SABC News (SABC News, 5/13). The noise from protests outside the courtroom at one point caused the proceedings to be delayed, according to the SAPA/iAfrica.com (SAPA/iAfrica.com, 5/13). Achmat told the crowd of TAC supporters, "The lies that the Rath Foundation is spreading are a complete fabrication," according to Reuters (Reuters, 5/13). Members of THO carried posters saying, "Viva doctor Rath," "We are doctors also" and "Media tell the full truth about ARVs" (SAPA/Independent Online, 5/13).
London's Guardian Examines Controversy
London's Guardian on Saturday examined the controversy surrounding Rath's claims and TAC's defamation lawsuit. TAC has said that Rath's work with vitamin treatment in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha is "probably illegal because he did not have approval to open clinics and offer any kind of therapy," according to the Guardian. TAC Treasurer Mark Heywood said Rath has "got a lot of money obviously, and he uses it perniciously to spread false information about medical treatment not just for HIV," adding, "The problem is that in South Africa he has found fertile ground both because of the denialism that exists within our government with relation to the management and treatment of HIV but also because of AIDS denialist groups, which he is pumping lots of money into." However, Ralf Langner, the international coordinator of the Rath Foundation, said that the foundation is not seeking to make money selling vitamins in South Africa but is trying to inform people about antiretroviral toxicity and "support this government in its attempts to bring nutritional programs forward." South Africa has the highest number of HIV-positive residents among countries worldwide, with more than five million people living with HIV/AIDS in the country. Under a national treatment program, the government thus far has provided 42,000 people with antiretroviral drugs, according to the Guardian (Boseley, Guardian, 5/14).