Nearly 500 people came to Tok Dara’s house in Phnom Penh last Thursday. They arrived from Banteay Meanchey province, Sihanoukville, Koh Kong and Kompong Cham, and they left carrying an herbal medicine they hoped would save their lives.
Tok Dara has designed a medicine he claims can help HIV/AIDS sufferers live longer, healthier lives, and on Thursday—for one day only—he was giving it away for free.
For HIV/AIDS sufferers, it seemed too good to be true. And it probably is, health officials warned of the handout. Such remedies have been promised around the region before, but were nothing more than hoaxes.
Tok Dara advertised the event in the Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Consciousness) newspaper and twice on Bayon radio, after which the station was asked by the ministries of Health and Information to pull the ads. But by then, news of the giveaway had spread, and HIV/AIDS sufferers and their families across the country were already preparing to make the journey to the capital.
“I heard this news about the distribution of AIDS medicine on the radio, and I was very happy to hear it,” said Long Sam Oeur, a 28-year-old woman from Kandal province who said she contracted the disease from her husband two months ago. “I wished that the day would come soon when I could go to collect the medicine,” she said.
Like most who lined up at Tok Dara’s doorway on Thursday, Long Sam Oeur came not out of any great faith in the medicine, but out of desperation. “I am not sure that this medicine can cure me and my husband, but it is my last hope,” she added.
Long Sam Oeur waited in Tok Dara’s sparse shop house while a line that included policemen, elderly women, soldiers and street sweepers took turns giving details of their health in exchange for packets of medicine.
Each came away clutching two bags of soft brown pats wrapped in purple cellophane, which when dissolved in hot water make a dark, herbal drink. One pack is designed to last five days, during which time the patient must abstain from seafood, carbonated drinks and bamboo shoots, Tok Dara said during a break.
After using the medicine for two months, patients should have a three-month break before beginning treatment again, he added. After the initial giveaway, each pack will cost $25.
It’s a high price for the average Cambodian, but a price many consider well worth paying. A recent USAID report states the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in Cambodia as the highest in the region, with an estimated 2.8 percent of the adult population infected with the disease.
Seated behind a large wooden desk with two black plastic bin-bags of medicine beside him, Tok Dara declined to say what goes into his costly HIV/AIDS remedy: “The medicine includes honey and three other natural ingredients, but I don’t want to say what they are in case other doctors copy me,” he explained.
Tok Dara has no formal medical training, and describes himself as self-taught in the science of traditional medicine. He said he and his two sisters make the medicine using a formula he invented himself in his Sotheros Boulevard home. “I found this recipe three years ago, after studying for about a year,” he said.
Tok Dara said his preparation can’t cure HIV/AIDS, but it can prolong the lives of sufferers and delay the onset of illness.
The self-appointed medicine-man said he is giving away his remedy out of compassion for Cambodia’s many poverty-stricken HIV/AIDS victims.
“AIDS patients are very poor, and so they don’t have enough money to buy medicine,” Tok Dara said. “The plan is to give the medicine to 500 people; after that we will have to sell it,” he added. “We only have a small amount, because it is very difficult to make.”
Tok Dara is not the first to market an alleged HIV/AIDS remedy in Cambodia. In 1999 a spate of herbal products claiming to cure the disease caused the Ministry of Information to outlaw the unlicensed advertising of HIV/AIDS medicines.
In Thailand last year, scandal erupted after a drug named the V-1 Immunator, which suppliers claimed could cure HIV/AIDS, was given out to more than 20,000 people infected with the disease.
Medical experts in Cambodia, and around the world, dismissed the handout as a hoax, saying it was likely the medicine’s makers were looking for a cheap way to test the product.
Officials are no more enthusiastic about Tok Dara’s concoction.
“The Ministry of Health knew about this case and tried to stop it by sending a complaint letter to the court,” said Chin Chheav, deputy director of the ministry’s Hospital Department.
“But I didn’t see any action from the court about it. We also tried to talk to Tok Dara and ask him not to do this distribution, but he always escaped from us when we went to his house,” she said.
Chin Chheav was skeptical about the efficacy of Tok Dara’s HIV/AIDS treatment. “I think this medicine is fake, because nobody in the world knows how to cure AIDS—if they did, they would have the Nobel Prize by now,” she said.
Tok Dara may not be in line for any international accolades, but some HIV/AIDS patients say his remedy has already changed their lives.
Mao Vy came to collect more medicine for her 3-year old grandson, who is infected with HIV/AIDS. “He got AIDS from his mother when he was born; she died a year later,” the diminutive 52 year-old said.
“Before, my grandson could eat very little because his mouth was full of ulcers. I used to cry every day when I saw him,” Mao Vy said. But after taking a dose of Tok Dara’s herbal brew, Mao Vy claimed her grandson’s ulcers disappeared, allowing him to eat and gain weight.
“Before he was thin, but now he is fat,” she said. “I believe that this medicine can help my grandson live longer than before and get healthy again.
“I’ve told my son—my grandson’s father—who also has AIDS, to come here and get this medicine too,” she said.