HIV researchers - Be warned! Peddlars of fake HIV cures are using the names and reputations of established scientists to make quick money from patients desperately seeking solutions to their HIV infection on the internet. Ever since the discovery of HIV, it is well known that opportunists have used falsehoods about the virus to capture ‘victims’, who fall prey to a ‘quick remedy’ to cure AIDS. This is understandable – HIV is a devastating diagnosis riddled with stigma – any chance of escaping or curing the disease is seized upon in hope, even obviously false hope.
The internet and the reach of social media enables charlatans to flog their wares and push unregulated misinformation on online platforms. This is particularly dangerous when the rumours and hyped up claims pertain to untested herbal medications and bogus claims of cures for AIDS, or any other illness for that matter.
CAPRISA has recently fallen prey to the shenanigans of a company touting a ‘cure’ for AIDS. On June 23rd, CAPRISA received a call from a person who enquired about Professor Salim Abdool Karim’s endorsement of the herbal product Topvein on Facebook. Images, profiles and articles available on the legitimate CAPRISA website were duplicated and posted on a fake Facebook account, created in July 2016, in the name of “Salim A Karim”. The fake Facebook page, which promotes Topvein as a cure for HIV as well as diabetes and tuberculosis, had acquired over 1000 Facebook friends and had been regularly interacting and communicating with people following the account, posing as Professor Abdool Karim.
CAPRISA reported the fake Facebook account to the Facebook administrators and received a dismissive automated reply suggesting that complainants should not visit a site if they do not agree with its contents. A request was then posted on CAPRISA’s official Facebook page requesting viewers to report the fake account to Facebook. The response was phenomenal and within 4 hours more than 1000 viewers filed reports to the Facebook administrator objecting to the fake Facebook account. This post was shared 16 times, reaching over 2000 people, and just after 4 hours, the fake account in Professor Abdool Karim’s name was disabled by Facebook.
However, that was not the end of the problem. Shortly after the phony account was disabled by Facebook, two more bogus Facebook pages (one created under the name of @CAPRISAL) using the CAPRISA name and images, including photos of Prof Salim Abdool Karim were found promoting Topvein and other herbal medicinal products. The fake CAPRISAL account was also created in July 2016 and initially gained credibility by sharing legitimate posts about CAPRISA, which had been taken from the official CAPRISA website and Facebook Page. Later posts on this Facebook site were CAPRISA posts alongside Topvein promotional material. The fake CAPRISAL page offers advice to people living with HIV on how to take their antiretrovirals and also offers information on Alzheimer’s and dementia, diabetes, tuberculosis and cancer. The site also falsely claims that CAPRISA is informing the global community about the discovery of a new HIV/AIDS drug called “Anti-Dot”. In a post providing patients with advice on how to boost their white blood cells count while taking antiretrovirals, false claims are made about CAPRISA conducting research on selenium and its impact on white blood cells. The second bogus Facebook page is for the group, ‘@herbalmedicinel’. It contains posts using images of CAPRISA and Professor Abdool Karim to promote Topvein. Both these Facebook pages have now been disabled.
Topvein originates from Zambia, according to the Facebook page, but can currently be purchased in 10 countries, including South Africa. On their website, Topvein claims that the validity of the drug has been proven through four separate clinical trials. Although Topvein was indeed tested by the Zambian National AIDS Council in 2006, the “trial” was conducted in only 11 participants.
The “clinical studies” from China, the Philippines and Nigeria that are provided as proof of the product’s efficacy are even more dubious – two of the studies describe the effect of a protein isolated from a bean plant on an HIV enzyme in a pre-clinical setting and the other is an analysis of the chemical components of two bean species found in Nigeria.
No proper randomised controlled trial has ever been conducted to warrant clinical efficacy claims made on Facebook, i.e., there is no scientific basis to support any claims that Topvein can cure HIV/AIDS. Regardless, Topvein claims on its website (https://www.topveinhealthshop.com/) that: “We offer high potency, herbal and alkaline producing products that promote cellular health, pH balance, and well being from the eastern hemisphere's ancient remedies for natural health. Our multi-purpose Topvein formula is the highest quality alkali forming herbal supplement for cellular detoxification and cellular regeneration for strong immune support and infectious disease control.” It seems that nonsensical gobbledygook like this can sell “snake oil” remedies.
A Dr Mendez Fernandez, an Alternative Medicine and Wellness consultant from Zambia, is listed as the inventor of Topvein and on other links he is referred to as a medical consultant, who apparently is licensed to practice in Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Most of the posts on the fake Facebook pages provide the contact details, including mobile numbers and physical address, for a Dr Justin. Attempts to call Dr Justin on the telephone numbers listed on the Facebook page have been unsuccessful. The Topvein Health Shop Facebook page includes links to a website on Mendez Clinic, which claims that HIV can be cured (www.aidscurefound.com), and a link to a webpage where the product can be purchased for the hefty price of $149 (www.topveinhealthshop.com). The Topvein website even includes a revolving banner featuring pictures and quotes from famous people including Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Nicky Minaj.
CAPRISA has reported the trademark infringements on its name and is pursuing legal action against Topvein and Dr Mendez. CAPRISA hopes that this information is helpful to others who may find themselves at the receiving end of false claims using their names.
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