Mumbai: When 37-year-old Shantaram found out he was HIV-positive a few years ago, he was overwhelmed with fear—of discrimination, of death.
Then he read about a cure in a local newspaper.
Suddenly hopeful, Shantaram decided to stake all he had—his tractor, his savings, even his land—to undergo the treatment at a clinic in Nanded, Maharashtra, run by a homeopath, Siddharth M. Jondhale. He paid some Rs1 lakh for six months of treatment.
Caught in the Net: Jondhale’s website offers a cure for HIV/AIDS.
“I was so anxious, I was willing to try anything,” says Shantaram, who did not wish to be identified by his full name.
But, at the end of the treatment, he remained HIV-positive.
More than two decades after the discovery of India’s first HIV/AIDS case, a period marked by steady awareness of the disease, thousands of patients such as Shantaram continue to be drawn in by doctors who claim to offer a cure. Now, with the help of state laws and advocacy groups, some patients are filing lawsuits to get their money returned or banning false advertising to put the doctors out of business.
“Many HIV-positive people fall for these claims because they are afraid of the stigma that the disease brings,” says Shabana Patel, president of the Network of Maharashtra by People Living with HIV/AIDS. The network typically receives more than 50 such complaints from HIV-positive patients each month. “It’s only when they realize that it is not working that they come to us seeking help.”
With a local network of HIV-positive people, Shantaram found the means to fight back and is now on anti-retroviral therapy drugs. A few months ago, the network’s Nanded district chapter filed public interest litigation against some of the “doctors” offering cures for HIV/AIDS in and around Nanded, including Jondhale.
On 10 October 2007, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court passed interim orders against three such doctors who claimed their alternative treatments cured AIDS: Jondhale, Bhai Amarjeet Singh Major Punjab Singh Gill and Rajesh Pandit.
The court also issued an order prohibiting the respondents from claiming through advertisements or any other medium that a cure or treatment for HIV/AIDS exists or that they are qualified medical practitioners who can provide a cure or treatment. Making such claims for diseases that contemporary medicine deems incurable (such as cancer and HIV/AIDS) is illegal under the Indian law, unless it is scientifically tried and tested, and conclusively proven curative.
According to Veena Johari, the legal head of the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS unit, the non-profit organization that filed the petition on behalf of the citizens group, the medical practitioners methodically operate a scam. They first test patients who will invariably test HIV-positive. They then offer them some medication and, at the end of the course, conduct another test—generally a “P24” test that shows “indeterminable” results. P24 is an antigen that the body produces in excess early in the infection; it generally fades to undetectable levels once HIV becomes fully established. Some of the most modern HIV tests combine P24 and other antigen tests with standard antibody identification methods to enable earlier and more accurate HIV detection.
The court case has not served to shut Jondhale’s practice down. Contacted on his mobile phone, Jondhale denies receiving any such notice to stop. “I am not aware of any such order so I can’t comment on the matter,” he says. He declined to answer further questions over the phone.
His website, aids-siddharth.org, includes a “before” and “after” of a test of a patient with HIV/AIDS.
Asked by Mint to independently confirm the results, Vipul Patel, chief pathologist at the diagnostics company Metropolis Health Services (I) Pvt. Ltd, says it is possible for a patient to be HIV-positive and still test negative for some or even most of the antibodies. “Antibody levels typically taper off with progression of the disease.”
The website also includes a testimonial from a patient, stating, “AIDS/HIV is curable 100%...anybody can save the life with Siddharth M. Jondhale’s invention.” Such promises extend beyond Nanded. In Ingalgi, a tiny hamlet in Bagalkot district, Karnataka, which saw its first cases of HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s, locals also have paid a steep price in dealing with quacks.
“We came across some agents who promised to cure these people in Kerala,” says Muttappa Kumar, member of the village’s gram panchayat and member of the village health committee. Over a period of time, the village spent more than Rs10 lakh on quacks; some estimates provided by non-governmental organizations indicate that the entire Bagalkot district may have spent more than Rs30 lakh on quacks.
A few years later, when most of these patients did not survive, the people of Bagalkot decided to set up their own health-care facilities. While they have not used the legal route, they have declared an informal ban on “quackery”—as the practice has come to be known—and now partner with the Karnataka AIDS Control Society for their projects.
The National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco), the government agency that develops most programmes related to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in the country, is also taking note. “We are aware of quacks who are operating in certain parts—such as Maharashtra, Kerala and Haryana—and are considering taking action against them,” says B.B. Revadi, National Programme Officer—anti retroviral therapy, Naco.
In January 2007, the Supreme Court ordered Kerala-based T.A. Majeed to stop manufacturing, marketing, selling and distributing Immuno-QR, a drug that he claimed cured HIV/AIDS. Patients groups had been fighting the case since 1993. A few months later, the Karnataka high court passed an interim order against four doctors who claimed a cure for HIV/AIDS in response to a public interest litigation filed by the Karnataka Network of Positive People Living With HIV/AIDS.
A vigilance mechanism does exist, but it is a complex one and varies from state to state. In Maharashtra, each district has its own committee that has been set up to deal with quacks. The committee has representatives from the police, the government—including the district collector and officials of the health department such as the district health officer and the civil surgeon and the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“FDA officials alone cannot initiate proceedings against any person who offers treatment for any disease. This does not come under our jurisdiction. We can, however, initiate proceedings against such a person only if they are in possession of medicinal products and is involved in their distribution, without being qualified to do so,” says S.A. Momin, joint commissioner, Maharashtra FDA. The administrative body, therefore, has not dealt with any cases of doctors who claim to cure HIV/AIDS.
At the YRG Centre for AIDS Research and Education, Chennai, founding director Suniti Solomon says her organization has been waging a war on unscrupulous practitioners for almost two decades now. Earlier, when the drugs were more expensive, the number of patients who used to go to such practitioners was very high. But even today more than 30% of the patients who come to the centre have been treated using some indigenous therapy.