Rath’s Wrath

Pharmaceutical Imperialism:

The AIDS virus is the single most devastating disease the modern world has known. It is easily transferrable, terminal, and unfortunately a cure has not been discovered. The disease is typically concentrated in the heavily populated areas of underdeveloped nations, making the installation of necessary preventative programs difficult. The governments of these countries are easily swayed, and cultural prejudices against Western medicine can prove to be formidable hindrances. Naturally, these regions are vulnerable and thus are susceptible to sketchy medical practices. It is sad that many of these regions aren’t satisfactorily combating the disease, but maddening when pharmaceutical suppliers knowingly implement treatments that aren’t effective for their own profit. Essentially these players are making money through supplying the sickliest populations in the world with ineffective medicine. This is called pharmaceutical imperialism: a term that unfortunately has become the norm.

The aforementioned situation above can be quintessentially portrayed via the story of Dr. Matthias Rath in South Africa from the years 1996 to 2005. The AIDS virus was, and continues to be rampant throughout the impoverished regions of South Africa. Anti-retrovirals (ARV’s) were the established and existing treatment for AIDS in South Africa before Rath came to town. ARV’s were the generally accepted, scientifically justified, and most effective AIDS treatment available. This paper will dissect Rath’s unethical and aggressive strategy to establish his VitaCell multivitamins as the premier AIDS treatment, and his tactics will consummate into the answer to the most important ethical question: is there blood on Rath’s hands?

Capitalizing on Culture:

A brief look into South Africa’s past and present fight against imperialism is vital to the understanding of the vulnerable cultural environment in which Rath imposed his wrath. Centuries of Western invasion and abuse left many nations with young governments struggling to find their identity. Although the majority of nations have their independence, their former colonizers have left these populations with skeptical and even suspicious tendencies towards the Western world. This hateful predisposition is ever more apparent in South Africa because of the former apartheid government. The past supports a culture that views the AIDS virus as a racist diabolical strategy to suppress Africa; “Many find it suspicious that black Africans seem to be the biggest victims of AIDS, and point to the biological warfare programmes set up by the apartheid governments; there have also been suspicions that the scientific discourse of HIV/AIDS might be a device, a Trojan horse for spreading even more exploitative Western political and economic agendas…” (Goldacre 6). Rath understood that if he could link the existing ARV treatment with the white world, he could gain control of this highly potential market.

Playing into cultural tendencies is an unbelievable way to market your product, but Rath takes it too far. The deontological perspective is the only perspective in which Rath’s cultural takeover could be ethical. This is because the culture supports a rule to be skeptical of Western medicine, a rule that Rath is undoubtedly adhering to. But this moral reasoning is weak, especially as Rath himself is a man of the Western world. Virtue ethics would identify the act as unethical as there is nothing virtuous about denying the sick the best treatment available. A Utilitarian would see this act as unethical in that stripping away access to ARV’s sent hundreds of thousands to unnecessary suffering, “…estimat[ing] that between 2000 and 2005 there were 330,000 unnecessary deaths, 2.2 million person years lost, and 35,000 babies unnecessarily born with HIV. (Goldacre 10). It is clear that the strategic decision to harness the cultural suspicion of Western medicine was unethical. Rath exploited South African culture for personal gain, leaving hundreds of thousands without proper treatment, and further tarnishing Rath’s already nefarious moral character.

Government Support:

The South African government adopted the AIDS Dissident mentality far before Matthias Rath arrived, and has been the prime deterrent to any successful ARV programs or treatments. It is just flat out a problem when the governing body of the most bilious AIDS population doesn’t believe that AIDS exists,

Were it not for the influence of dissidents, South Africa would long ago have… stop[ped] new Aids infections; provide[d] appropriate education; and offer[ed] meaningful treatment to those already infected…there are those who deny the existence of the human immuno-deficiency virus itself. President Thabo Mbeki…fit[s] into this category. Secondly, there are those who do not directly express an opinion on the virus, but who argue that scientifically proven treatments are either ineffective or poisonous. Matthias Rath fits into this category.

(Democratic Alliance 2013)

Matthias Rath expedited this preposterous belief and gained the backing of the government quickly. Most importantly, now Rath no longer had to worry about being identified with the negative Western medicine stigma that he so eagerly subjected the existing ARV’s to. He now had the ability to whisper false information into the ears of politicians, using the government as a vehicle to market and sell his multivitamins. Previous Governmental treatment and educational programs were cut, and the focus was turned onto nutrition. Malnutrition was claimed to be the reason for all the dying and sickness, providing the perfect platform for Rath to launch his multivitamin VitaCell. Obviously in these impoverished areas, nutrition was a colossal problem, yet to make the claim that unsafe doses of vitamin C was a better AIDS treatment than ARV’s was ludicrous.

Again, there are many ethical red flags that go up upon this decision to further mislead this clearly confused government. Once more, the only normative ethical position that could perceive this action as indeed ethical is the deontological perspective. From this deontological standpoint the rule that had been established in the government was to deny AIDS as a real disease and focus on nutrition. Rath is abiding by this, thus being ethical. A Utilitarian would see some positive consequences because there was more emphasis on better nutrition, as well as those who participated in Rath’s trials were given stipends for food. But, the greater consequence again is a negative one, that being the fact that hundreds of thousands were not given proper treatment. Providing food for malnourished and sick trial participants is a virtuous act, yet stripping the right to the best medicine on a nation wide scale is ungodly.  With the governments support

Propaganda Advertising:

With the governments support, Rath launched anti ARV advertisements around South Africa to persuade the public away from his competitors. These advertisements were actually pieces of propaganda, in which perfidious claims were made.  These advertisements called ARV’s toxic, and claimed that the cure for AIDS was discovered, and easily obtainable. Interestingly enough, the piece of propaganda below is linked to a juice based AIDS medication that has imitated Rath’s strategy of false claims. After a long image search for one of these advertisements, this was the only one I could find on the Internet. Which, I believe means that Rath took them off the web. It is powerful though that other medicines are making similar claims, and shows that Rath created an environment where these untrue advertisements are the norm. As a South African, you aren’t given the correct information to create your own beliefs on the AIDS virus.


(Umlingo Advertisement 2013)

As you can see, this propaganda clearly states that this man, Bongani, has beaten the AIDS virus. Also, notice how the way in which he beats the virus is exactly what Rath’s strategy entails: “I stopped ARV’s & TV foods, drinks & snacks!” There is the bashing of ARV’s and then a focus on eating healthier. It is also very interesting how the text box on the bottom right refers to his friends as “WELL INFORMED”. They try and create a notion of credibility; that they are knowledgeable in an environment of misrepresented facts and claims. But ultimately, it is advertisements like this that continue to confuse the public and hinder patients from receiving ARV’s that give them the best odds to survive.

Propaganda can be an effective way to influence the attitude of the community, but it must have the proper ethical backing. From a Utilitarian view, even if the propaganda only focuses on one side of an issue, if the most good were spread to the most people, it is ethically justifiable. Unfortunately, the consequences are negative. Not only will more infected citizens not get the best treatment, but furthermore it has clearly installed a norm that false advertising is acceptable. Rath hasn’t been in South Africa in eight years, yet false advertising on AIDS is still happening. Rath and the government’s attempt at propaganda has fostered more ineffective medicines to make outlandish claims. And, on an even grander scale, consumers will lose faith in product’s abilities to live up to the expectations that are communicated in advertising. Essentially, Rath is creating a rule that you may make false claims, meaning that future advertisers can justify their behavior deontologically when the rule is such that you can make false claims. If a greater disconnect between consumer expectations and producer claims ensue, then customers lose their confidence in spending money on products.


Matthias Rath’s implementation of VitaCell in South Africa was actually quite impressive. Playing into cultural tendencies, gaining the support of the government, and aggressive advertising allowed him to sell his medicine in the highest demand market for ten years. Yet, in the process millions were neglected access to the best treatments, appropriate educational and preventative programs were lost, and an advertising culture plagued with false claims has been installed as the norm. An entire country was negatively affected for the benefit of one man. In 2005, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which is a group of South African AIDS lobbyists, successfully banned Matthias Rath and his VitaCell from South Africa. Although, the negative effects are still felt in South Africa today, an encouraging future is dead ahead. More government programs are now installed that provide treatment, preventative information, and education about the disease. For example, condoms are found in almost every bathroom in Cape Town.

It is clear to me that although effective; Rath was severely unethical to the point where the blood of all those millions who died is on his hands. ARV’s existed and were readily available, yet, Rath stripped patients of their right to the best medicine for his own personal gain. The saddening aspect is that pharmaceutical imperialism is occurring all over the world, and even has become the norm in underdeveloped nations. No longer may this continue because it is every person’s right to the best medicine when they are sick if it is available.

Works Cited:

Democratic Alliance. Top 12 AIDS Dissidents. Rep. World Wide Creative, 2013. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://www.da.org.za/documents.htm?action=view-            document&document=558>.

Goldacre, Ben. The Doctor Will Sue You Now: The Shocking and                       Previously Unpublishable New Chapter from His Book Bad Science. N.p.: HarperPerren ial, 2009.

Umlingo: WamaNgcolosi Natural Detox & Rejuvenating Juice.             Advertisement.Information Clinic: The Key to Health and Wealth. South             African Business Woza Online, 2013. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.             <http://www.umlingo.wozaonline.co.za/Testimonies&gt;.





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