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'No substitute' for HIV, TB drugs

28th August 2007

A change in eating habits or herbal supplements do not constitute a viable substitute for pharmaceuticals in the treatment of HIV and tuberculosis, a study in South Africa has found.

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The study, carried out by the Academy of Science of South Africa and funded by the US National Academy of Sciences, examined local and international medical research on nutrition, with specific reference to HIV and TB.

The team of 15 researchers spent 16 months examining the evidence for the efficacy of foodstuffs, food supplements and herbal medicines.

It found, according to study leader Barry Mendelow of South Africa's National Health Laboratory Services, that no food, no component made from food, and no food supplement had been identified in any credible study as an effective alternative to currently available medication.

South African health officials have encouraged the use of beetroot, lemons and garlic to treat HIV, although activists suggest they are simply reluctant to provide enough antiretroviral drugs to treat the 5.5 million people now living with the virus.

Traditional healers have also claimed herbal cures for HIV, while some salesmen have been encouraging HIV patients to stop taking antiretroviral drugs in favour of vitamins.

However, experts also point out a link between malnutrition and poverty, and the rate of infections of HIV/AIDS and TB. South Africa's cure rate for TB is well below international standards, and drug-resistant strains have prompted warnings from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Dan Ncayiyana, editor of the South African Medical Journal, said: "We need a well-nourished nation. But a well-fed population on its own is not going to resist HIV/AIDS without antiretroviral drugs."

The study also noted that better nutrition can postpone when an HIV-positive person has to start taking antiretroviral drugs, and called for more research into how nutrition, HIV and tuberculosis interrelate in the developing world to address a gaping deficit in the amount of locally relevant, well-designed research on the best kind of diet for people with HIV or tuberculosis.

Health officials in South Africa received a copy of the report in mid-August, and said it bore out the ministry's view that nutrition was an important factor in the transmission of HIV/AIDS and TB.


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