The Doctor Will Sue You Now: the missing chapter of Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" about the selling of vitamin therapy instead of anti-virals to AIDS patients in South Africa

The Guardian's Dr Ben Goldacre has published a free ebook to accompany his recent book Bad Science, an expose on the junk science that infects policy and health in the UK. The ebook, "The Doctor Will Sue You Now," contains a chapter that Goldacre had to cut from the printed edition, because its subject, a vitamin salesman named Matthias Rath, tied Goldacre up in £500,000 worth of litigation over its contents.

What did Goldacre write about Rath? He told the story of how Rath took out full page adverts promoting vitamin pills as the answer to the Aids epidemic, and deriding antiretroviral medication as a murderous conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry. He ran clinics reflecting these ideas, and an illegal clinical trial, and he brought these ideas to the right place: South Africa was headed by an "HIV-denialist" government - introduced to these ideas by a man who would later become Rath's employee - who shunned medical treatments in a move that Oxford Journals' African Affairs estimates cost over 340,000 lives. Rath is feted by alternative therapy advocates around the world, and used the not-inconsiderable wealth he amassed selling these vitamins to sue Goldacre and The Guardian when they criticized his work.

The Doctor Will Sue You Now is Creative Commons licensed and freely redistributable.

ËœThe answer to the AIDS epidemic is here," he proclaimed. Anti-retroviral drugs were poisonous, and a conspiracy to kill patients and make money. "Stop AIDS Genocide by the Drugs Cartel said one headline. "Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS." The answer came in the form of vitamin pills. "Multivitamin treatment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug. Multivitamins cut the risk of developing AIDS in half."

Rath's company ran clinics reflecting these ideas, and in 2005 he decided to run a trial of his vitamins in a township near Cape Town called Khayelitsha, giving his own formulation, VitaCell, to people with advanced AIDS. In 2008 this trial was declared illegal by the Cape High Court of South Africa. Although Rath says that none of his participants had been on anti-retroviral drugs, some relatives have given statements saying that they were, and were actively told to stop using them.

Tragically,Matthias Rath had taken these ideas to exactly the right place. Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa at the time, was well known as an "AIDS dissident", and to international horror, while people died at the rate of one every two minutes in his country, he gave credence and support to the claims of a small band of campaigners who variously claim that AIDS does not exist, that it is not caused by HIV, that anti-retroviral medication does more harm than good, and so on.

Matthias Rath - steal this chapter

Bad Science (Thanks, Dave!)


  1. so you give Rath (and Mbeki) a choice: recant publicly or be infected with HIV and handed a bottle of vitamins. Then infect them anyway.

  2. Takuan, that plan sounds fine except that Rath and Mbeki would probably just turn to the old “rape a virgin” cure that’s been all the rage in rural Africa lately.

  3. Living in South Africa during all that (not that it’s over) was such a surreal experience that I feel somehow honoured to have witnessed firsthand the stupendously impressive levels of ignorance, politicking, taking showers and, most certainly, bribery.

  4. @brainspore – it’s worse, it’s “rape a child”; at least once or twice a week I would hear of kids between 3 months (!) and a few years old found with their insides ripped apart. The lucky ones were found dead. The live ones… words fail me.

  5. @ Digilante: I guess I was just being charitable to Rath and Mbeki. I heard that trend started with “have sex with a virgin” and the victims’ ages gradually declined as desperation rose.

    One of the saddest things about the whole mess is that Africa would have the resources to rule the world if they could just get their shit together politically.

  6. I’m reading this chapter right now, and I just got to the point where this Rath guy sued Médecins Sans Frontières. He sued Doctors Without Borders!

    Seriously!! Doctors Without Borders!?!??! What’s next, the Red Cross? Suicide hotlines?

    I agree with a previous commenter, this is one of those times I wish I believed in Hell, because this guy should be burning in it.

  7. Matthias Rath?

    Tip: if you’re going to do something really evil, you’re more likely to get caught if you start out with a name that sounds like a comic book villain.

  8. Sounds disturbingly similar to Scientology’s reliance on vitamins and spa therapy for treatment of everything under the sun, from radiation posioning to the common cold.

  9. Gelfin FTW.

    If I were a south African dictator, I’d prevent all AIDS treatment and all forms of contraception to encourage the spread of the disease and eliminate the masses of people without a natural immunity. I’d also make everyone change their last name to mine.

    In five hundred years or so, my entire nation would be populated by the survivors, and my name would rule the world.

    Keep in mind you have to be pretty crazy to be a south African dictator.

  10. Fortunately, this is one area where we can expect definite improvement from “Jay-Zee” over Mbeki. (even if he has some strange ideas about the preventative abilities of post-coital showers.)

    It’s definitely too little, too late, but we can expect some serious policy swings now on the provision of ARVs to those needing them.

    And way to go, Dr Goldacre!

  11. @ Gelfin (11): especially to English speakers, for whom the last name sounds just like “rat”.

    It sounds totally invented: Mattias Rath, the industrialist whose dastardly plan to substitute snake oil for live-saving medicine leads to mass death in the third world. Fire the screenwriter!

  12. Isn’t any way in which the International Penal Tribunal (or whatever its name is) can get this fucker?

  13. The American organization mentioned in that chapter refuses to help sex workers. Among the comments below are a few moralists claiming that OK because Jesus would have told them to abstain.

    These so-called Christians are blatantly lying, for they must have heard one of their own Saviour’s most famous quotes:

    Faced with a mob about to stone a prostitute to death, Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

    So withholding life-saving treatment is not murder?

    Where’s the biblical equivalent of the second half of the first law of robotics?

  14. If nothing else, I hope this entire sad story serves as a lesson about the politicization of junk science. In my book, about 95% of claims made by “nutritional supplement” companies fall into this category as well. I’m tired of hearing about how “evil pharmaceutical companies” are conspiring to keep mystery cures out of the hands of the public.

    Given enough gullible people and an apathetic government, this kind of crap could become policy in the US almost as quickly. We came within a hair’s breadth IMHO under Bush, between his “we don’t need no stinking evolution in schools” and the complete commercialization and destruction of the US healthcare system under his watch. Really sick, impoverished people + unaffordable/accessible “real” treatments + huckster selling free or nearly-free quack treatments + money to buy media saturation promoting quack treatments = public health disaster + huge profits for hucksters.

    I’ll never forget the day that my local Yuppie Health Food and Vitamin Joint (where I sometimes get a veggie shake) tried to sell me colloidal silver for what I knew was a serious stomach problem. Glad I didn’t self-medicate and do my yoga for too long on this one, as I had an ulcer (NON-H.Pyloreum) that was close to perforation. Oh, and echinechea won’t do jack shit against hospital-acquired staph infections either, folks. OTOH when I was anemic due to various Unpleasant Uterus Ownership Issues, iron supplements, whole small bone-in fish (cooked), and lots of green veggies fixed me up just fine over a two-month (doctor-supervised) period.

    Remember, vitamins are nutritional SUPPLEMENTS, not medicinal SUBSTITUTES.

  15. I find it kind of amusing that “Airborne” is still a bestselling product in the U.S. even though they aren’t allowed to claim it actually does anything anymore.

  16. Brainspore–what’s even funnier is that I actually got my settlement check from the class action suit a few months ago and that crap is STILL on the shelves.

  17. The only thing more terrifying than the greed and callousness of the snake-oil salesmen is the self-righteous fury and indignation of dupes who have their beliefs challenged.

  18. Am really glad that Mbeki is no longer in Power. What an Absolute disgrace, his denialist policies were.

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