American comedian and commentator Bill Maher might have hosted one of the most irresponsible television segments in recent times when he had Dr Samir Chachoua on his show Real Time With Bill Maher last weekend.
Chachoua is the doctor whom actor Charlie Sheen went to for alternative treatment for HIV. Chachoua claims to have found a cure for HIV and AIDS in arthritic goats' milk (yes, you read that right) and has even said that Sheen has been the first adult to become HIV negative under his care.
Sheen, who revealed in November 2015 that he was HIV positive, shocked doctors and AIDS activists last month by announcing that he was going off conventional anti-retroviral treatment. Instead, he went to Mexico to meet Chachoua.
In an interview to the famous Dr Oz, cardio-thoracic surgeon and television personality, Sheen said that Chachoua convinced him of the efficacy of his treatment by showing him how HIV viral loads disappeared from test tubes of his blood. Dr Oz and Sheen’s own doctor who had been treating him since he was diagnosed HIV positive in 2011 convinced the actor to stop Chachoua’s treatment and get back onto regular ART therapy.
Chachoua claims that the Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis Virus in arthritic goats’ milk attacks the HIV virus but leaves healthy human cells alone. But considering that the viral load in Sheen's blood was already undetectable, it’s impossible to tell whether Chachoua’s medicine killed the hidden HIV viral cells.
What’s shocking is that in Maher, who says he is sceptical of the system of group-thinking in Western medicine, seems to buy Chachoua’s claims of having cures to cancer and AIDS, of having been tricked out of publishing and sharing the findings by institutes like Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of California, Los Angeles, of having cured whole countries like the island-nation Comoros of AIDS. Health activists have been writing and blogging to bust Chachoua’s stories.
It’s not clear how long Sheen stopped taking his regular treatment for, although a graph aired in the Dr Oz interview showed that his viral load, which dropped from 4.4 million to undetectable in 2011, stayed that way till December 2015. Given that the interview aired in mid-January, Sheen could not have stopped his medicines for more than a few weeks. Even then his viral load had become detectable again. As David Gorski writes in Science-Based Medicine:
“Chachoua’s claims that Sheen was rendered 'HIV-negative' with his treatment are worthless without independent verification and long-term follow-up. After all, I could give Charlie Sheen the proper cocktail of antiretroviral drugs and then, after his viral load drops to zero, tell him he’s HIV negative. It’d be meaningless without long term follow-up, because the virus eventually starts replicating again.”
HIV activist Peter Staley checked reports of a court case fought between Chachoua and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and found that although Chachoua claimed to have won the $10 million case, the court in fact dismissed the case after reducing it to a breach of contract worth $11,250. When the medical centre filed a counter case to recover their court costs in excess of this amount Chachoua missed court dates and his lawyer quit the case. The medical centre made no payout to the Chachoua.
A third rebuttal of Chachoua’s story came from social media.
Both Chachoua and Sheen describe in the different interviews how the former was so sure of his methods that he injected himself with Sheen’s blood. It’s something that Dr Oz rightly decries as “inappropriate” but Maher says is “confident”. Maher also seems to suggest that Chachoua is some kind of modern day Loius Pastuer or Edward Jenner whose independent thinking had is leading to breakthrough cures of dreaded diseases.
He fails to ask why no one in the world – global health organisations who struggle to fight the scourges on the ground or pharmaceutical companies who stand to make millions from such a discovery – would ignore it. It doesn’t seem like Maher has looked for published and reviewed medical literature by Chachoua or anyone else on these methods.
Here’s the kicker. Chachoua is an Australian who had to treat Sheen in Mexico because he doesn’t have a licence to practice in the United States. A cause to worry? Chachoua says on his website that his medical qualifications are honoured and have kept him “sufficiently busy over the past three decades” in at least six countries, including India.