Sowetan runs unethical ad

  • Melissa Meyer & Kim Johnson - 9 November 2012

The Sowetan seems to have forgotten that as a widely read publication it has an ethical responsibility to feature correct and accurate HIV information—even when it comes to advertisements.

In a move which reveals the paper’s skewed prioritisation of money over public health and safety, Sowetan has chosen to run a full-page advertisement selling an “immune system builder” of dubious credibility, which claims to “fight against” HIV and TB.

The huge eye-catching advert for ‘Vuka’ might promise “advanced immunology” but the absence of a manufacturers name, a list of ingredients and the fact that it claims to “fight against” an endless list of maladies, means that it is more likely than not a money making scam.

And it is a dangerous one at that.

By promoting what appears to be a quack product, Sowetan could potentially put HIV-positive people’s health at risk by promoting what the public might perceive as an alternative to antiretroviral treatment (ART).

In fact, one could argue that the ad presupposes that this is a better alternative to public health care and ART by outrageously claiming that it is “the best help at the best price”.

For people living with HIV, ART is the only proven way to manage HIV infection and enable HIV-positive people to live long and healthy lives. And the clincher—it costs nothing to access this treatment.

Even if people do not perceive this product to be a replacement for ART, they may take it in conjunction with ART thinking they are making good health choices. However products like this may contain ingredients that interfere with antiretrovirals (ARVs) in a variety of ways.

Supplementing ART in this fashion and without a doctor’s approval could lead to increased side effects from the treatment and can affect the potency of ART as the liver struggles to metabolise the other drugs along with the ARVs.

The reality is that these kinds of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) are widely available in South Africa, and due to the deeply contested history of the Medicines Control Council (MCC) are not effectively regulated.

This puts the public at high risk of falling for false claims. Instead of acting in its readers’ best interest, the Sowetan’s ad lends legitimacy to “Vuka”, taking advantage of its readers’ vulnerability.

Sowetan’s decision to publish the ad is likely to have been informed by a profit motive but there appears to also be a general amnesia towards the time when vitamin peddlers and quacks were posing a serious threat to the country’s HIV response.

Then the media were key to exposing shams like these. Sowetan’s unscrupulous choice of advertising is frankly embarrassing given the lengths to which activists, advocates, medical professionals and ordinary citizens had to go to debunk these hoax “solutions” and secure effective, scientifically proven treatment.

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“there is a general amnesia towards the time when vitamin peddlers and quacks were posing a serious threat to SA's HIV response”