In the cramped offices of a privately-run hospital in this small town a few kilometres (miles) outside the Nigerian capital Abuja, a doctor claims he has the cure for HIV/AIDS.
In the reception room outside, two dozen patients are lined up, desperate to get -- and willing to pay for -- a shot of the 'magic bullet' treatment produced by the man in question, Dr. Jeremiah Abalaka.
Since November last year, a debate over the doctor's unproven claims has been raging in Nigeria and further afield.
In March, Nigerian Health Minister Tim Menakaya went on state-run television to dismiss Abalaka's claims to a cure as unfounded and promised to resign if they were proved true. Last month, an official of the South African Medical Information Service put out a statement describing Abalaka as a quack whose treatment should be shunned.
But a few days later, Nigeria's Chief of Air Staff Air Vice Marshal Isaac Alfa stirred the controversy telling reporters that 30 HIV-positive soldiers recently returned from peacekeeping missions abroad had been treated by Abalaka and "cured".
Abalaka himself does not comment on the chief of air staff's claim. In a lengthy interview with AFP, the 51-year-old trained surgeon with a post-graduate qualification in immunology said he did give his "vaccine" to the military but did not run the treatment himself.
But he said he has himself since January cured more than two dozen other patients who have been converted from HIV sero-positive to sero-negative by five weekly shots.
Of the more than 750 patients remaining, 85 percent have shown "remarkable improvement" and are on their way to a cure, he said. The treatments, and the findings, have been replicated by other doctors on other patients to whom he has given the "vaccine" since February, he added.
Most health experts, of course, are sceptical.
Firstly, Abalaka's treatment has not undergone any independent clinical tests. False positives and false negatives are common in HIV. But though the treatment is unproven, Abalaka is charging between 21,000 and 25,000 naira (210-250 dollars) per shot for the five weekly treatments, and in some cases occasional monthly boosters and has taken on almost 800 patients to date.
Secondly, he has refused to reveal the secret behind the cure and promised tests have not happened.
"I know they say I am a 419ner," said Abalaka, using the common Nigerian term for a conman. "I am not some sort of alternative practitioner. I have done the research and found the cure. If Britain, France, the United States said it works, people would believe it... my own government would believe it," he said with exasperation. "The African mentality virus is what is affecting people here."
Certainly, many Nigerians with HIV are ready to listen to Abalaka and pay huge sums for his treatment.
Abalaka himself has offered to go on Nigerian television and inject himself with the HIV virus to prove his claims.
In the interview in his clinic, Abalaka explained that he had started work seeking an HIV vaccine in 1992 and in 1995 he struck upon the system he is using now, taking the blood of a patient, processing it in a way he will not describe, and reintroducing it.
In 1997, he tried it for the first time on a HIV-positive patient and in late 1998 had his first "cure", he said.
International and Nigerian AIDS specials remain sceptical.
"Currently there are around 100 claimants of a cure for HIV in Nigeria. None have been independently verified. Dr. Abalaka's is just the one getting the most attention," said Paul Okwulehie, a member of Nigeria's government-run National Action Committee on AIDS, set up by President Olusegun Obasanjo.
"So far as we are concerned there is still no known, proven cure for HIV/AIDS," he added, warning of false positives and false negatives confusing patients and possibly even confusing Abalaka himself.
Drugs companies have expressed an interest to Abalaka and other doctors say they have had results with his "vaccine".
Doctor Sam Tor-Agbidye of the Foundation Hospital, Makurdi, told AFP he had used Abalaka's treatment on 29 patients to date of whom three had converted to sero-negative with others "improving" -- charging them the same rate as Abalaka.
"Of course everyone is interested in a cure for HIV," said Okwulehie. "All that we are saying is that he should go through the entire process, clinical trials, publication, peer review and so on." -- GWAGWALADA, Nigeria (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)