Nature

The Virus That Lives On The Virus

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In the Golden Age of Quackery, shysters peddled secret cures for everything in-cluding, as one put it in a piece of ad copy that would have made him a vice president on Madison Avenue, “The Cramp, the Stitch, the Squirt, the Itch.”

These “cures” appealed to a civilization 100 years away from the theory of germs; now even second-graders know more about disease. “Progress,” as Robert Browning wrote, “is the law of life.”

Or maybe not. AIDS, the reaper of more than 343,000 lives in the U.S. alone, is the object of a grim campaign of moneygrubbing, deceit, and paranoia on the Net. In April 1996, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office forced Marjorie Phillips to stop running online ads claiming you could be “HIV-Negative in Six Weeks.” Steering people to a $1.99-a-minute 900 number and a $25 book on curing AIDS, Phillips told them HIV was caused by a flatworm, but both could be obliterated by “SyncroZap,” a nine-volt, battery-powered gizmo.

The ideas weren’t Phillips’s, but one Hulda Clark’s. Like H.G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau, Clark practices bizarre and perhaps dangerous experiments outside U.S. borders. But unlike Moreau, she actually exists. A devoted following on the Net spreads word of-and excerpts from-her books (The Cure for All Diseases and The Cure for HIV and AIDS) like a contagion itself. “You can’t get AIDS,” reads one newsgroup posting that reprints her findings, if you adhere to a regimen of electrical shocks and a lifestyle devoid of toothpaste, Jell-O, and Noxema, for starters.

People believe in Clark, says Dr. John H. Renner, a Missouri-based expert on Net-related AIDS fraud, because “Effective treatments have been so hard to come by…and, often, these ‘miracle cures’ come with enough medical jargon to sound good.” A teenage HIV-positive hemophiliac he knows discovered Clark while scrambling over the Net for cures; his family whisked him to Mexico for Clark’s wonder treatment. In exchange for the few thousand dollars it cost them, Renner deadpans, “They had a nice vacation in the sun.”

Renner notes that many of the scams-including Clark’s-come out of schemes that use the techniques of multilevel marketing to sell nutrition supplements with an almost religious fervor. He continues: “Add the widespread circulation on the Net of a document called the Strecker Memo-randum, which claims a government plot was responsible for AIDS, and you have some people ready to invest in ‘cures’ that the medical establishment condemns.”

Condemning a government (ours) under which “the lawyers won’t let us” distribute his “breakthrough” herbal treatment, Thomas Apraku of Montreal offers a free guaranteed cure at his Web page. To rid your body of AIDS, Apraku claims, “You drink three cups of the herbs a day as you drinking [sic] tea or coffee….It clear all the bumps and pimples on the body, make your skin come back [sic].” Though he wouldn’t disclose the herbs’ secret ingredients, “All the people who have been treated for the past of five and six [sic] years have no side effects and they are living perfect [sic] all right up to today.” In fact, “We could have cured Magic Johnson in three or four weeks, but we couldn’t get through to him on the phone.”

“I guarantee you won’t pay anything,” Apraku told me when I called him. “Of course, you must help out the doctors who fly in at their own expense and have to stay at a hotel. But that is all. And if you can come to New York, perhaps we can have you meet with others who are being cured at the same time, so you can all split the cost, you see? But you don’t have to pay anyone anything if you’re not cured.” The doctors jet in from Togo; figure airfare would be at least $3,000 and a hotel another couple of thousand dollars. The only thing being cured is someone’s low bank balance.

Oddly, the Food and Drug Administration hadn’t yet heard about Apraku, though Renner had. “These people really know how to market lies, and we’re not as good at marketing the truth,” he says. While he suggests sites such as Project Inform, The National Institutes of Health, the FDA , and AmFAR can create a protective shield of knowledge against AIDS fraud, “Nobody can be immunized against scams.”