The Goats’ Milk Cure and Other Fables

To live with HIV is to live with advice on curing it. I remember the first time this happened to me in October of 2001 when I was just released from a hospital in southern Indiana, newly diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. I was a shrunken, humorless, fuzzy-mouthed, dull-witted version of my former self and just well enough to sit and make phone calls to say good bye or prod people to return my borrowed stuff while my family packed up around me, preparing to move me back home, over 800 miles away. On one especially cold morning I wobbled up to the door to receive an acquaintance who came to return much-treasured Sweet Honey in the Rock CDs. As I thanked her, I realized I needed a simple explanation for why I couldn’t stand at the door, getting cold, and couldn’t invite her in to talk more because my throat hurt from thrush. What came out of my mouth was “I have AIDS, I have to move back home,” to which she cheerily replied, “Oh, you do know about super colloidal silver, right? It’s going to be fine.” I assured her that I did, thanked her, and sent her along.

In reality I didn’t know the first thing about super colloidal silver. However I understood enough of medicine and the human body to recognize that that ingesting precious metals was not going to restore me to health and might make me even sicker (medical research confirmed my suspicions).

Since that time, countless well-meaning friends and acquaintances have offered me advice on a variety of affirmations, prayers, devices, diets, herbs, supplements and nostrums that they believed would either rid my body of HIV or replace my antiretrovirals. If I had followed their suggestions, I would be dead many times over by now from either AIDS or the toxicity of the alternative treatments.

Unfortunately not all who claim to have a cure or effective treatment for HIV have pure intentions. Some seek money, fame, recognition or all three and generally operate outside of the public eye in order to avoid media and scientific scrutiny. However, in recent months we have been hearing a lot from one “Dr. Sam Chachoua” who claims to be able to remove HIV from the body through a treatment derived from the milk of arthritic goats and to have cured Charlie Sheen, making Sheen “the first person in history without antiretroviral therapy to go HIV negative and PCR zero.” Although this claim has since been disproven and denounced by Sheen, Chachoua continues to garner national media attention; recently He was recently a guest on “Real Time with Bill Maher” where he was given ten minutes to talk up his “treatment”, talk down ARVs and even boast of “curing countries,” to a fawning Maher and applauding audience.

The consequences of giving the peddler of a fake HIV cure a national and international audience is devastating to the health of people desperate for a cure. Indeed, drinking the HIV infection away with goats’ milk sounds a lot better than facing a lifetime of stigma, medical appointments, and pills. It is therefore likely that some people with HIV have stopped taking their medication and start on goats’ milk due to Chachoua’s encouragement. We must do our part to stop this! An essential step towards that end is demanding that Bill Maher have an HIV medical expert on his show to refute the goats’ milk cure. Maria Mejia, my sister in HIV/AIDS advocacy work, has started a petition demanding that HBO and Maher do just that. Please take a moment to go to this link and sign it.

Another essential piece of undoing the damage is to test the truth of truth of these claims. To do so we will follow guidelines that Chachoua himself offered on investigating alternative practitioners and their therapies; “ When you see an … alternative therapist, claim that they can cure you, demand to see the data…. You should have publications by all of these [practictioners] about who have they treated….. about what the results were like. They should live by the same rules as conventional medicine. It’s the only way you’re going to get any answers.”

A fundamental “rule of conventional medicine” is that a doctor and/or biomedical researcher have appropriate credentialing and education with a clear internet record of both. You will find this information easily if you look up your own doctor but you won’t find it for Sam Chachoua. The only place on the internet that references his education is his own website which states on one page that he holds an MBBS and on another an MMBS. He is likely referring to just one degree, a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery which is similar to an MD. After a lot of digging I was able to confirm that he did graduate from the University of Melbourne in 1984 with said MBBS. However, he provides no information on where he interned (a required step for gaining a medical license in Australia) or any residencies, fellowships or certifications which are standard for the level of specialization needed to treat and/or research infectious disease.

Next, we must explore the publications about “who [they have treated]…and “what the results were like.” This is essential because publication and peer review are the only way one can safely conduct clinical trials and develop effective treatments. Although Chachoa has asserted that “I’ve been getting published, presented and peer reviewed ever since the age of 19,” he has in fact never published an article, book or report of any kind, let alone one on the results of his HIV/AIDS treatment. I searched his name on both PubMed and Google Scholar to find his total scholarly output is one conference presentation with multiple authors on a cancer drug.

This brings us to “demanding to see the data” that supports Chachoua’s claim that he can both prevent and cure HIV. Specifically he states that drinking the pasteurized milk of goats infected with Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis Virus (CAEV), can make one immune to HIV and that drinking a fermented version of it will either lower the virus to undetectable levels or, in the case of Charlie Sheen, eliminate it from the body altogether. His “data” for this argument are: 1) articles that he says were published by other researchers; 2) a study that he states he has conducted on people with HIV in a small Mexican village who drank goats milk and did not progressed to AIDS; 3) a study “of thousands” by USC that replicates the findings of his smaller study “over decades of follow-up” and 4) a claim that his vaccine “eradicated” HIV from the island nation of Comoros as of 2006.

As to the first claim, he did not provide citations for the articles, so I again systematically searched through the Medline and Google Scholar. It is true that in 1997 USC researchers presented at a conference on the possible uses of CAEV for developing an HIV vaccines and that the same team published an article in 2003 on cross-reactivity between CAEV and HIV, as did a team of researchers from Mexico in 2009. The publication trail ends here, probably because these discoveries had no practical application: Biomedical researchers seldom report hitting a dead-end with research because journals rarely publish insignificant results.

I could find neither articles referencing Chachoua’s research on a small Mexican village nor any evidence a USC team conducting a study of CAEV and HIV anywhere at any time. His final claim of curing Comoros has already been neatly disproven by Dr Oz and by Althea Fung in her excellent blog on The Body.

By Chachoua’s own standards then, we see that there is simply no evidence then that consuming goats’ milk cures or treats HIV. Personally, I have eaten more than my fill of goat’s cheese over the years, finding it much easier on my touchy digestive tract than the bovine version. Yet HIV is still with me, more reliably constant than the advice of friends and strangers and, thanks to the new generation of ARVs, also much easier to bear.