Patients sue Gambia's ex-president over 'bogus' HIV cure

Sarah Bosha is with AIDS-Free World, an advocacy group supporting the civil suit that was filed this week in Gambia.

'I could have lost my life,' says one plaintiff of her herbal treatment under president Yahya Jammeh

Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh prays while administering his alleged herbal cure to a patient at the State House in Banjul, Gambia. (Candace Feit/The Associated Press)
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In a press release, Fatou Jattah described the ex-Gambian leader's treatment program as a "horror." 

"I could have lost my life," said Jatta, one of three Gambians who has filed suit this week against the country's now-exiled leader Yahya Jammeh. 

They allege Jammeh is responsible for the suffering they endured after he imposed a bizarre so-called "cure" for HIV and AIDS on patients in the west African country, starting in 2007.

Sarah Bosha is with the advocacy group AIDS-Free World, which is supporting the lawsuit. She was in Gambia earlier this month, visiting the plaintiffs.

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off: 

When you saw these three plaintiffs in Gambia, how were they doing?

They were doing really well. They were in good health and in high spirits.

We sat down and talked about where we were with the case, what we hoped would be the next steps [and] arranged a few meetings with the lawyers on the ground.

Members of the advocacy group AIDS-Free World stand with some of the plaintiffs. From L to R: Saramba Kandeh (AIDS-Free World), Fatou Jatta (plaintiff), Sarah Bosha (AIDS-Free World), Lamin Ceesay (plaintiff). (AIDS-Free World)

They took this 'cure' — what harm did it actually do to them?

Well, you have to understand that in addition to taking that 'cure', they were not on their ARVs [antiretroviral drugs]. So two of them, when they went in, were on their ARVs and had to immediately stop. 

This 'cure' was making them have continual diarrhea, making them vomit, making them feel excessively weak, and in some cases, they were experiencing hallucinations.

Just their general state of health and well-being — both emotionally and physically — was seriously impacted by the time they were taking this bogus cure.

Lamin Ceesay, awaits his herbal HIV treatment by Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh, at Serrekunda Hospital in Banjul, Gambia, in 2007. (Candace Feit/The Associated Press)

Tell me more about what happened to some of these people who took part in the then-president's plan to cure them of HIV.

Lamin Ceesay, one of the claimants in this case, actually lost his wife in the program.

Lamin himself, because he was exposed to people with TB [tuberculosis] at the time, and he was not on his antiretroviral medication, contracted TB.

While he was recovering and sick in hospital, his wife's condition deteriorated. 

He left the program. She had to stay in because Jammeh hadn't yet discharged her.

Eventually, she died.

He wasn't there to be with her in her last moments. Her mother had to call him and inform him that his wife had passed on.

Can you describe the program that he subjected them to?

He had some kind of concoction that he made people drink. He had another which he rubbed on their bodies. 

Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh shows his inked finger before voting in Banjul, Gambia in 2016. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

There was that mystical, spiritual element to it where he would pray over them with prayer beads, wave the Qur'an over them and mutter prayers, and give them peanuts sometimes that he had prayed over.

It was quite bizarre.

Why didn't people leave?

They left when they were told that they were cured. He would be the one that had the discharging powers — particularly for these claimants that first entered his program as the first and second batch of people living with HIV under his so-called care.

Yahya Jammeh, top wearing white, waves to supporters as he goes into exile from Gambia's capital Banjul airport in January of last year. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

Did the world health community intervene to try to stop this?

The world health community did try to speak out against it.

There was a U.N. AIDS country coordinator who said, you can't keep telling people you have a cure if you haven't subjected this so-called cure to tests. As far as we know, there is no cure, and if you keep saying it you're encouraging risky behaviour.

That woman was given, I think it was 48 hours, to leave the country.

How many people went through this treatment?

It's hard to say with any certainty how many people went through [it], and how many people died.

But the claimants in this case say they saw death quite often. They saw many of their colleagues dying during the treatment program.

Written by Kevin Ball and Katie Geleff. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.