Lagos - Panic over Ebola has the makers of dietary supplements aggressively targeting Africans, claiming to have a cure for the lethal virus.
Late last week, both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued strong warnings about false Ebola cures. The latter threatened US companies with penalties if they continue making such claims.
Nigeria's health minister was widely reported last Thursday to have endorsed a US nutritional supplement, one that the WHO said was an example of the sort of "false rumours of effective products" it was trying to quell.
Earlier last week, a WHO expert panel ruled it ethical to try some experimental drugs to fight this outbreak; some supplement makers have implied that the ruling constituted permission for use of their products, though a top WHO official emphasised that it did not.
While discussing the shipment to Liberia of experimental drug ZMapp, which the panel did endorse, Nigerian health minister Onyebuchi Chukwu said an unidentified Nigerian scientist living overseas had arranged for the country to get a different experimental medicine, according to Nigerian news outlets.
They identified it as NanoSilver, a supplement offered by the Natural Solutions Foundation, which said that it contains microscopic silver particles, although as a food supplement, and it is not tested by regulatory agencies. Silver kills some microbes on surfaces and in wounds, but it can be toxic and is not FDA-approved for systemic use against viruses.
ZMapp is a set of antibodies made by the Mapp company of San Diego. Only a few doses exist, and two were given to US health workers who contracted Ebola and are now hospitalised in Atlanta.
Since the outbreak started, many rumoured cures have swept West Africa. A popular Nigerian rumour is that bathing in or drinking saltwater is protective. While bathing in saltwater is harmless, drinking large amounts of it is not. The WHO said two Nigerians have died of it.
Over the 30-year history of the Aids epidemic, many quack HIV cures have been marketed to Africans.
One particularly damaging incident occurred in South Africa in 1997, when three Pretoria scientists claimed to have discovered a cure, which they named Virodene. The Cabinet enthusiastically endorsed the drug but it turned out to contain a dangerous industrial solvent.
New York Times