Matthias Rath made his fortune in Europe and America as a vitamin-pill entrepreneur. Over time, he became a hugely influential international campaigner for the use of natural remedies. In 2003, he narrowed his focus to lobbying against antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in the fight against AIDS, taking full-page adverts in newspapers claiming not only that a program of nutritional supplements could cure the epidemic but also that ARVs were nothing more than a money-making conspiracy by the big pharmaceutical companies. “Stop AIDS Genocide by the Drugs Cartel,” ran one of his headlines. “Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS. Multi-vitamin treatment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug. Multivitamins cut the risk of developing AIDS in half.” According to the ‘Dr Rath Research Institute’ website, the AIDS epidemic “is being used to create economic dependency and monopolise health care across the developing world.”
Moving into a township near Cape Town called Khayelitsha, where 70,000 people were HIV-positive, he established the Rath Health Foundation clinic to distribute his own formulation, VitaCell. Persuading HIV-positive residents to give up their ARV drugs, he came across as philanthropic, giving away his “cellular medicine” free to people with advanced AIDS.
He had chosen the right place at the right time. South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, an “AIDS dissident” who had compared AIDS researchers to Nazis, was very receptive to Rath’s ideas. During the peak of the epidemic, his government had argued that HIV was not the cause of AIDS and that ARVs were doing more harm than good. Proper antiretroviral medication treatment programmes had not been rolled out and Mbeki had refused to accept grant money from the UN’s Global Fund to buy anti-AIDS medication. His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, even claimed that western countries had deliberately spread HIV among Africans through smallpox vaccines. She went on record to praise Rath’s Foundation, refused to investigate his activities, and advocated natural remedies for AIDS such as beetroot, garlic, lemons and African potatoes. South Africa’s stand at the 2006 World AIDS Conference in Toronto was described by delegates as the “salad stall”. Interviewed on television, Tshabalala-Msimang insisted that HIV positive people who ate African potatoes had shown improvement, and they had said so themselves. Asked whether there should be a scientific basis to her views, she replied: “Whose science?”
There were other influential AIDS ‘dissidents’. Anthony Brink, a lawyer and former judge, who later became one of Rath’s most enthusiastic backers, described the belief that HIV causes AIDS a “mass hysteria” and he refused to recommend the use of condoms on the grounds that “an act of love” cannot cause death.
Foundation workers reportedly infiltrated AIDS clinics in Khayelitsha, obtained the names of HIV-positive patients and then visited people in their homes to persuade them to swap their ARVs for multivitamins.
For several years, Rath rode the crest of a wave by capitalising on buzzwords like “natural” and “holistic”, by distorting trial data, denigrating mainstream medicine and spreading conspiracy theories involving the pharmaceutical industry.
Opposition to Rath was slow to gain momentum, but eventually South Africa’s advertising standards authority ruled that some of the claims for his vitamins were false and the US food and drug administration warned him that some of his advertising broke the law. The World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and Unicef accused him of misrepresenting their advice on the value of nutrition in combating HIV. Rath retaliated aggressively by accusing them of being infiltrated by the drug companies. He also started suing anyone who got in his way. The head of Medecins Sans Frontieres said: “This guy is killing people by luring them with unrecognised treatment without any scientific evidence”. In 2005, exasperated by government inaction, a group of 199 leading medical practitioners in South Africa signed an open letter to the health authorities of the Western Cape, pleading for action on the Rath Foundation: “Our patients are being inundated with propaganda encouraging them to stop life-saving medicine… [They] have had their health compromised by stopping their antiretrovirals due to the activities of this foundation.”
Meanwhile, Rath’s propaganda machine continued unabated.
His close South African associate, Anthony Rees, who ran the Foundation in his absence, later said: “When I started working with Dr Rath I thought everything was above board because the way he presents his company is as philanthropic and seems to be evidence-based. It looks like he’s done a lot of research to back up what he does and make the statements that he does.” Within two years, Rees turned against Rath, saying he had realised that the pills were not saving lives and that a number of its ‘patients’ had died after coming off ARVs.
The consequences of Rath’s involvement in the AIDS crisis were horrific. In mid-2005, about a million HIV-positive people who needed antiretroviral drugs were still being refused them. It is estimated that if the South African national government had used ARVs for prevention and treatment, many hundreds of thousands of deaths might have been prevented between 2000 and 2007.
Eventually, in 2008, the Cape High Court banned Rath and his foundation from conducting unauthorised clinical trials and from advertising their products. The South African Health Department was instructed to fully investigate his vitamin trials.
Rath is believed to have migrated his operation to Russia, a country where the incidence of HIV/AIDS has been increasing. His ideas are propagated on the Dr. Rath Research Institute website. According to this website, Matthias Rath is “the physician and scientist who led the breakthrough discoveries in the natural control of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions.” These discoveries “rank among the most important discoveries of all time in the field of medicine.”