When basketball legend Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV, it was a death sentence, and he promptly retired from the Los Angeles Lakers. Fans mourned his coming demise, but to everyone's astonishment, Magic's life continued in relative normalcy. A quarter of a century later he is an active entrepreneur, business leader, philanthropist and advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention.
Magic's story is emblematic of one of the great medical achievements of our time. Although there is still no cure or vaccine for HIV, teams of medical researchers have developed a highly active antiretroviral therapy (the HAART “cocktail”) that significantly slows the progression of the disease by reducing the viral load to an undetectable level. If treatment is started promptly after early detection in young adults, for example, life expectancy returns close to normal.
Perhaps this is why there was far less media frenzy and social mourning after the November 2015 announcement by actor Charlie Sheen that he was HIV-positive. Most assumed HAART would save Sheen's life, not his “tiger blood” and “Adonis DNA” that he boasted about during his highly publicized 2011 meltdown following his dismissal from the hit TV series Two and a Half Men.
What a surprise, then, to see featured on the popular HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher on January 29, 2016, one Dr. Samir Chachoua, who told Maher and his more than four million viewers that he cured Sheen of HIV through his own drug cocktail of milk from arthritic goats. The treatment is based on Chachoua's “nemesis theory” that “for every disease there is an antidisease organism capable of destroying it and restoring health.” Goat milk infected with caprine arthritis encephalitis virus, Chachoua says, is HIV's nemesis. When Sheen went to see him in Mexico (Chachoua is not licensed to practice medicine in the U.S.), very soon after treatment Sheen's liver tests allegedly returned to normal levels.
Chachoua also boasted that he had eradicated HIV from the small African island nation of Comoros, and when Maher asked him why he wasn't better known, he said that his cure was buried by the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after he sent clinicians there his vaccine for testing.
Not likely. According to Sheen's doctor, University of California, Los Angeles, professor Robert Huizenga, Sheen went on the HAART cocktail in July 2011 after his diagnosis, and by December of that year his viral load was undetectable. (“Undetectable” does not mean cured; the virus can be hiding in the body.) Four years later, in search of a permanent cure, Sheen visited Chachoua, who credited his goat-milk nemesis for Sheen's undetectable HIV load. Sheen went off the antiretroviral medications, and his HIV levels shot back up. Fortunately for him, Sheen came to his senses and started taking his antiretroviral medications.
As for the Cedars-Sinai “cover-up,” in a lawsuit against the medical center Chachoua claimed that it reverse engineered his vaccine and destroyed his samples, but a court document states that he failed “adequately to identify the alleged trade secrets; and has not shown that such secrets are deserving of protection” and that “Chauchoua has failed to introduce admissible evidence supporting an inference that Cedars improperly acquired or revealed any alleged trade secrets.” Further, Cedars-Sinai told the court that once it learned in July 1996 that Chachoua had “improperly used his collaboration with Cedars to promote his products for treating HIV infection” it terminated testing of his virus and “returned all remaining samples ... for delivery to Chachoua on September 25, 1996.” Finally, according to the U.C.S.F. Medical Center, of the nearly 800,000 people of Comoros, about 7,900 of them have HIV/AIDS. Some cure.
After the HBO show, Sheen and his physician appeared on The Dr. Oz Show to denounce Chachoua as, in Sheen's words, a “grand work of fiction,” for whom “I'm not going to be trading my meds for arthritic goat milk,” because “guys like this are dangerous.” The real nemeses of many potentially deadly diseases for which we do not as yet have cures are those who would capitalize on our fears.