In this investigation, The ICIR reveals how herbal doctors in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT Abuja scam cancer patients to buy drugs for a disease that yet has no cure.
HERBAL doctors in Abuja contradict the views of the World Health Organisation, WHO reports on its website that says cancer has no cure yet. The herbalists claim in their frequent advertisements that they proffer a cure for cancer, though without documented evidence to substantiate this claim.
Posing as a client, seeking help for a non-existent aunt diagnosed with breast cancer, The ICIR reporter visited three major herbal clinics within Abuja metropolis to investigate their operations and treatment methods and the position of herbal medicine regulatory agencies on the practices of herbal doctors.
Exposing the deceit of Abuja herbal medics that “cure” cancer
Arriving at the supposed location of Halamin Herbal centre in Karu, Abuja at exactly 2:37 pm on Friday, 18 January, The ICIR reporter couldn’t recognise the building from the address the herbal practitioner who identified himself as Timothy gave.
The inscription on the wall of the building reads “Trump – Hills Investment Int’l Ltd” which was different from the business name that appeared on its website that portrayed it as a herbal clinic.
The ICIR searched for the company name, “Trump – Hills Investment Int’l Ltd” which eventually turned out to be a real estate company based in Abuja that acts as an agent for prospective house buyers.
After waiting for about thirty minutes, Timothy, arrived apologising for coming late and welcomed The ICIR reporter with an all-too-familiar gesture, “How long have you been here? Welcome my brother, I’m sorry my car was bad and the mechanic took a long time fixing it,’’ he said.
His office was a two-room sparsely -furnished apartment, comprising of tables, chairs, and shelves showing a scanty office space that could be vacated in a hurry.
“So what are the issues,” Timothy asked, almost with the genuine curiosity of an expert.
Direct from the horse’s mouth
The ICIR reporter gave a long talk about his relative who did not exist, diagnosed with breast cancer and has decided to try herbal medicines due to financial constraint and the fear of the effect of chemotherapy.
First, Timothy made inquiries about the name, age and phone number of the cancer patient which he wrote in a big notebook without demanding for a physical examination of the patient to know the extent of the cancerous tumour or a laboratory test result to confirm the reporter’s story.
“My aunt had been on herbal remedies, which consist of garlic and beetroot, but it didn’t improve her condition,” The ICIR reporter said to get more information from him.
“Well, we don’t give garlic, we give refined herbs,” Timothy said, pulling out a container containing capsules of the herbs before handing out some to the reporter.
Timothy was eager to discuss the cost of his herbal remedies rather than seeking information about the medical history of the cancer patient he claimed he would cure.
“I am certain she will get cured only if she follows the instruction. We charge ₦60, 000 per month for the drugs because the treatment will take four months which is a total of ₦240, 000 but if you’re paying cash for the whole four months we will give a discount of ₦10,000,” he said.
The ICIR, agreed with Timothy on a fixed price of N216,000 after a discount of 10 per cent was granted. A few hours later, he sent a First Bank account number with the name “Trump – Hills Investment Int’l Ltd” to the reporter to pay the money.
When Timothy was informed of the patient’s desire to come to his office for evaluation, he declined but agreed to maintain correspondence with the reporter via WhatsApp platform where he would convey instructions on how the drugs could be taken.
The code of advertising practice according to the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) created by Law No 55 of 1988 reaffirms the provisions of the Food and Drug Act that prohibits medical personnel from offering diagnosis, advice, prescription or treatment by correspondence.
Timothy might be unaware of the law that restricts him from offering treatment through Whatsapp but he was clearly confident about the type of service he offers.
“She doesn’t need to come here to see me, as you can see this is not an office where we can run diagnosis or lab operations. It is strictly, dispensing operations we run here, we can’t start running checks because she can do that in the hospitals. Whatever result you get from the hospital we take over from there,” he said to The ICIR.
When he was asked about successful cases of cancer patients his herbal drugs had been able to cure to get some level of assurance before the transaction is sealed, Timothy answered quickly, “So many people have been cured, and this is not a trial thing; our drugs work. As far as you are able to use the drugs meticulously and follow the rules,” he said.
In an attempt to convince The ICIR, he checked his phone to produce proof of people cured of cancer using his herbal medicine but was unable to come up with any, except the picture of a man on his phone whom he claimed was a medical doctor cured of colon cancer using his drugs. He also could not provide any medical documentation to show as proof.
“When he started taking the drugs he was pale already but you can see from the picture how strong he is.
“Orthodox medicines don’t work, that is the reason most medical doctors are coming this way, exploring the use of herbal medicines,” Timothy said.
The ICIR was able to get in touch with Timothy’s boss who owned the herbal centre, Ben Amodu, a self-acclaimed pharmacist and in a phone conversation with The ICIR, he confirmed the claims of Timothy that his drugs had been tested by the World Health Organisation, WHO, and could cure cancer.
“My drugs have been tested in the US and be sure that whatever kind of cancer you bring to us, it can cure,” he boasted.
In Nigeria’s herbal medicine industry, Timothy is one among thousands of herbal doctors who claim to have a cure for terminal diseases like cancer, HIV, without any documented evidence to show. Yet their claim, which many time has proven to be exaggerated or outright false, has put unsuspecting Nigerians at the risk of threatening complications or death as The ICIR investigation reveals.
Catholic-run herbal clinic that cures cancer with ₦8,500
The two-story building that sits on a busy Bangui street in Wuse II, Abuja is Deus Caritas Pax Herbal Centre. The ground – floor rooms are occupied by a thriving business centre and a herbal drug store, managed by the Holy Sisters of the Needy, a Catholic charity organisation. The centre caters for the underprivileged in society.
The ICIR placed calls to the herbal clinic to know if they had a cure for a diagnosed cancer patient and the reporter was assured they had drugs to solve the problem.
Unlike other herbal clinics The ICIR reporter visited, Pax Herbal Center was a serene and organised business environment with Reverend Sisters in attendance.
Sitting in a small cubicle that serves as her office, the soft-spoken Sister Oluchi who was responsible for treating cancer patients at PaxHerbal Center, Abuja attended to The ICIR.
After listening to The ICIR’s story, she requested for details about the cancer patient including the diet she was currently on.
She proceeded to prescribe herbal products sold at the pharmacy unit of the clinic for The ICIR.
The sale of any herbal drug advertised to the Nigerian public as treatment or cure for cancer is a crime under the Nigerian Food and Drug Act since there is no known cure such claims are likely to be false.
Section 2 of the Food and Drug Act CAPS 150 1990 prohibits the sale of any food, drug, cosmetic or device that is represented on the label or is advertised to the general public as a treatment, preventive or cure for any of the diseases, disorders or abnormal physical states specified in the said First Schedule to this Act.
The list on the first schedule of the act includes cancer, hepatitis among other terminal diseases without a known cure.
“Presently, we don’t have Special Averone ( a special drug for cancer sold in their pharmacy) for cancer patients but you can buy this Averone I’ve written it so that when this other type arrives then you can change it,” she said handing the prescription list to The ICIR.
She should always eat organic foods and make sure she doesn’t eat foods that are fertilized with inorganic fertilizers,” she advised.
When asked, how the cancer patient would be able to identify organic foods not fertilized with inorganic fertilizers.
She suggested that the cancer patient should get in touch with farmers to get farm produce straight from the source.
Normally, we don’t treat cancer patients here we refer them to our head office in Edo State but if she can’t go to Edo State, then she can continue to use these drugs. If she doesn’t have access to soursop then she should eat at least one bulb of onion daily,” she explained to The ICIR.
At the herbal pharmacy where their drugs are sold, the cost of the drugs was ₦8,500.
Doctor Wonder in a lucrative business
According to a Reuters report, data obtained from a study carried out by Market Research a specialized research agency, on the global herbal medicine market predicts an increase in revenue for herbal medicine globally from 2017 – 2023 based on the current market scenario and future status of herbal medicine within the forecast period.
The study reveals that the global herbal medicine market revenue is expected to hit $111 billion at the end of 2023, with China, India, Europe, Middle East and some African nations playing key roles in projecting a 7.2 per cent increase in earnings globally.
Esther Okonkwo, popularly called “Doctor Wonder” hopes to benefit from this money-spining industry.
Her herbal clinic which also serves as a beauty clinic is located in Garki 2 International Market, Abuja where the cost of renting a shop ranges minimally from ₦300,000 to ₦1, 000,000 per year.
The ICIR’s explanation about a relative who did not exist that was diagnosed with breast cancer who was looking for herbal solutions worked like magic, as Esther’s facial expression brightened at the prospect of having a new client.
“It’s no problem. There is a drastic measure to fight such cancer in a natural way so that the abnormal cells will die. Most times chemo is not the best because it will kill the good cells and the bad ones at the same time but what I am going to give you will produce good cells that will boost the immune system and kill the bad cells,” she explained patiently.
“Cancer sucks sugar but if you are able to know what to do, what to eat and how to suppress the sugar then cancer will not survive.
“My treatment will take three months and it will cost ₦500, 000 but you can pay monthly, within three months your cancer will disappear but it might extend to four months. After taking my herbal products for one month you will see the results,” she assured The ICIR with a smile.
A report on the catastrophic health fund for oncology care by Pink Oak, a non – profit organization in Abuja which focuses on fighting cancer puts the spending of women on breast cancer in Nigeria at ₦2.1 million to ₦29.2 million to treat breast cancer depending on the type of breast cancer.
This could include eight series of diagnosis that cost between ₦232, 000 to ₦311,000; three surgeries which cost ₦670,000 to ₦3.3 million; 10 sessions of chemotherapy that cost about ₦916,000 to ₦2.6 million and finally 10-23 sessions of radiotherapy, which may cost ₦138,000 to ₦360,000.
A failed miracle cancer drug
Hannah Igba, a cancer patient contributed to the herbal medicine industry before she later was confronted with ultimate reality. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 52 and had hinged her survival chances on the knowledge of doctors at the Federal Medical Center, Makurdi, who promised to get rid of the tumour.
Doctors at the hospital had told her she would need to have single mastectomy which is a medical procedure to remove her entire right breast that was affected by cancer as this would ensure that cancer would not cause damage to other vital organs.
She was, however, sceptical about the procedure not because her doctors were unsure the cancerous tumour would not grow in the future but the cost of the surgery would gulp over ₦2 million.
This amount was beyond her means being a widow whose livelihood depended on earnings from her small farm. Hannah, therefore, decided to take a herbal treatment.
A friend who claimed her mother was cured of cancer using herbal medicines directed her to the herbal medicine practitioner who administered the treatment. Israel, who is also a medical doctor and dabbles into herbal medicine, assured her that her cancer would be cured within six months if she maintained a natural diet and took the herbal drugs regularly.
Hannah was desperate to live. After consulting with her only son she started taking the drugs religiously, spending over ₦250, 000 in the purchase of the medicine.
What she was not told, however, was that the herbal medicines had not been proven scientifically to provide a cure for cancer and there were no clinical trials conducted to test the efficacy of the herbal drug.
Seven months after using the herbal drugs, the cancerous tumour on her breast had metastasized. Sometime in December 2017, she called her only son Francis to give him her final blessings. A few days later, in the late afternoon, she passed away.
A 2018 data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) rated Nigeria 157th among 185 countries with a high incidence of cancer.
The death rate in Nigeria tends to be higher, mainly because cancers are not discovered early and are not easily treatable given the limitation in the Nigerian healthcare system.
According to the global report, one in five men and one in six women will develop cancer at some point during their lifetime, and it is expected to become the leading cause of deaths.
Speaking to The ICIR, Francis said his mother’s greatest fear made her try various herbal remedies from different sources but none worked.
“My mother was always afraid of dying,” he said.
A pharmacist at the National Hospital, Abuja, Mshelia Richard, who spoke to The ICIR pointed out why Nigerians should be wary of “miracle drug” peddled by herbal medicine dealers who claim to have the cure for cancer.
“Cancer is a disease that has different stages but the chances of cancer being cured is when it is at stage one. If the cancer is at an advanced stage it can only be managed but some people believe that medical science has failed them when you tell them there is no known cure for cancer,” he said.
“The science of orthodox medicine emanates from herbal medicine but the difference is the dosage and calibration and that is why I can’t take away herbal medicine. I would not discourage or promote herbal medicine but I want Nigerians to verify the claims of these people who say they have a cure for cancer before taking their drugs. Check for those who have been cured,” he warned.
Fatima Uba, a radiation oncologist based in Abuja said the expensive cost of treating cancer leads cancer patients to seek alternative medicine.
“It is very difficult for Nigerians who can barely afford to earn ₦100, 000 yearly to spend over ₦2 million in treating cancer using orthodox drugs when they can’t feed properly. They will look for an alternative source of treatment that is cheaper and if the herbal medicine doctors claim to have the solution to cancer they will fall head over heels to patronise their services,” she said.
Ebunola Anozie, the founder of non – profit breast cancer support network Care Organization Public Enlightenment, COPE, advised against the sole use of herbal remedies in treating cancer.
“Well, herbal medicines can boost the immune system of cancer patients but I would recommend cancer patients to make use of proven treatment methods to be on the safe side,” she said.
Regulatory agencies reactions
The Food and Drug Act establishing the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC) empowers to monitor, regulate and control the manufacture, importation, exportation, advertisement, distribution, sale and use of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, chemicals and packaged water in Nigeria.
The ICIR investigations revealed that most of the drugs sold in these herbal stores are duly licensed by NAFDAC as they have registration numbers on them.
The NAFDAC seals on the herbal products afford the herbal practitioners boldness to lure unsuspecting Nigerians on the efficacy of their drugs to cure Cancer, HIV, Hepatitis among other terminal illnesses whose cure has not been scientifically proven.
Spokesperson of the agency, Abubakar Jimoh said, “Herbal medicine registration by NAFDAC has a listing status it is not full registration, it is effective for a one year period while other scientific pharmaceutical products have the full registration period that lasts for five years.”
Speaking further, “There have been cases of people having kidney cases, liver cirrhosis, and other issues from taking herbal products, NAFDAC is not against herbal medicine but what we are saying is do it properly. We are not aware of anybody who is saying he has a cure for cancer, NAFDAC has not licensed any herbal drug to cure cancer, such claims are false,” he said.
He also acknowledged that herbal medicines were vouched for by NAFDAC based on their safety to human health and not its efficacy.
“Well, in the past herbal medicines were given licenses because of their safety not because of their efficacy, you know the placebo effect. How can you tell people that this drug won’t harm you but it will not cure your illness? As a communicator, I told them it doesn’t make sense, but NAFDAC has partnered with NIPRD to effectively test herbal drugs, a committee was set up but I don’t know how far they have gone because it was relaxed until the current DG picked it up,” he concluded.
The Director General of the Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency, NNMDA, Sam Etatuvie, confirmed to The ICIR that there has been no herbal drug made for cancer yet as the agency’s cancer project is ongoing.
“We are still working on it, what we have, has a lot of potentials and it is still being subjected to clinical trials. These developments take years before you can authoritatively come out boldly to say you have a cancer drug.
“From our observational studies, test subjects are responding positively to the drug, and we will unveil it at the end of the year if it becomes feasible until that time there is no cancer drug produced from herbal medicine approved by the NNMDA,” he said.
This story was updated on 18th, February 2019 to reflect the additional information obtained from Halamin Herbal Centre.
Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.