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ALTERNATIVE MEDICINES - DAMAGING CONSEQUENCES OF GOVT'S RELUCTANCE TO REGULATE
There is a massive multi-billion rand market in South Africa for complementary and alternative medicines. It is impossible to say how many of these products are effective. But there is absolutely no doubt that the claims about a large number of them are based on shaky or non-existent foundations.
Many of these products, like those made by Matthias Rath to treat Aids and those made by many individuals to allegedly help with weight loss, diabetes and other conditions, are potentially deadly, because they persuade people with life-threatening illnesses or problems to stop proven remedies.
They also cause delays in people seeking help, leading to delays in diagnosis. Needless to say, a delay in accurate diagnosis leads to a delay in treatment, and these delays can cost lives. Some of these products even contain dangerous stimulants which are banned in South Africa.
It is the government’s job to effectively regulate the sale of these products and prevent consumers from being sold dangerous or ineffective products. In the words of Judge J Kriegler in Administrator, Cape v Raats Röntgen and Vermeulen (Pty) Ltd 1992 (1) SA 245 (A):
Manifestly [the regulatory system for medicines] was put on the statute book to protect the citizenry at large. Substances for the treatment of human ailments are as old as mankind itself; so are poisons and quacks.
The government appears to be well aware of this responsibility. In August last year the Minister of Health stated that:
"There is this notion that traditional medicine is some quack thing practised by primitive people… Our duty as government is to... put in resources to make sure these medicines work".
It is puzzling, therefore, that the government initiated a process for the regulation of alternative medicines three years ago but has refused to follow through with this. South Africa is in desperate need of a registration system that will allow quack medicines to be differentiated from genuinely effective products. But the Health Minister has moved in exactly the opposite direction.
As a result, a completely uncontrolled and unregulated market for alternative products is getting bigger virtually by the minute as a regulatory vacuum has turned this market-place into a free-for-all. This means that many South Africans are being fraudulently sold products that simply do not work or are actually dangerous, and which have often been banned or restricted in other countries, without having any way of knowing of the dangers involved. This situation cannot be allowed to continue.