On Friday night, comedian Bill Maher had a controversial guest on his show: Samir Chachoua, an Australian doctor who practices in Mexico. Earlier this month, Charlie Sheen went on The Dr. Oz Show and described going to Mexico to get Chachoua's unproven HIV treatment, injections he developed after studying the milk of goats with arthritis.
Doctors and HIV/AIDS experts are shocked that Maher would promote such a dubious medical treatment to his HBO show's audience of 4 million people.
"I was absolutely flabbergasted," Mark Harrington, executive director of Treatment Action Group, a New York-based HIV advocacy organization, told BuzzFeed News. "To promote a quack on his show, it's very irresponsible and can only be described as tabloid journalism at its worst."
"This kind of high profile pumping of alternative medicine stories linked to celebrities can harm other people by persuading them to do damaging things that affect their health," John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, told BuzzFeed News.
"This is a classic example of false hope syndrome," Moore added. "People are persuaded to do wacky stuff that stops them from doing the right stuff."
Maher's representative did not respond to a request for comment.
Chachoua did not respond to a request for comment, but he posted a long response to Oz and Sheen on his website, in which he stands by his claims. He also alleged there that Sheen initially came to him to "make his law suits go away by offering a treatment to people that he may have infected."
Sheen's manager, Mark Burg, vehemently denies this claim.
"None of it is true, sad what some people will do to make money," Burg told BuzzFeed News by email. "Charlie will respond when he next does the Dr. Oz show on Feb 9."
On The Dr. Oz Show, Sheen described his "radically bizarre" experience in Mexico. According to Sheen, he sought Chachoua's treatment after becoming frustrated with the side effects — "from migraines to poo poo pants" — of conventional antiretroviral drugs. Despite the fact that the meds had kept his HIV at undetectable levels for years, Sheen went to Mexico and received "a series of injections" from Chachoua.
At first, the results of these treatments were "incredible," Sheen told Oz, leading to undetectable blood levels of HIV. Here's how Sheen described the treatment, which he apparently got with two friends:
"Two dear friends that you know, they withdrew their blood, I withdrew some of mine, and I added mine to their test tubes. The blood was then incubated and cultured for four days, and when the results came back, all three were undetectable."
Sheen said he also watched Chachoua take a sample from Sheen's elbow and inject it into his own forearm, to prove how confident he was that the treatment had worked. "You can see why I was developing more faith, and more interest, and more intrigue into this, the path this gentleman was potentially taking me down," Sheen said.
But just before going on the show, Sheen said, he found out that his HIV levels had gone back up. Oz brought on Sheen's longtime doctor, Robert Huizenga of Beverly Hills, and they staged an intervention of sorts, imploring Sheen to go back on his regular medications. Sheen readily agreed.
The hype over Sheen's adventures in medical tourism could have ended there. But on Friday night, Bill Maher gave a sympathetic interview to Chachoua, asking him for more details about how his unusual treatment came about.
Chachoua told Maher that it began a long time ago, when he found a place in Mexico with lots of IV drug users and prostitutes who conspicuously did not have AIDS. "What I found was that people there were drinking milk from goats which had arthritis," Chachoua said. "These goats have a virus called CAEV. And this virus destroys HIV, and protects people who drink it for life."
CAE, or caprine arthritis encephalitis, is a real goat retrovirus, and it is in the same broad viral family as HIV. Some researchers have speculated that it could be used as a substitute for HIV in animal research, and a 2003 study suggested that people exposed to CAE might (falsely) test positive for HIV.
Several other animals, including sheep, primates, horses, and cats, also carry HIV-like viruses, and those, too, have been used in research, Moore said.
"They exist. Now, would one be a vaccine against another? Uh, no. It's not that simple," Moore said.
There is no solid research showing that CAE works as an HIV treatment or vaccine. In fact, researchers have been trying to develop an effective HIV vaccine for 30 years.
"We're not all at home twiddling our thumbs," Moore said. "It's not an easy problem, and the solution is not injecting people with viruses or drinking goat's milk."
Maher played a local news clip from years ago claiming that Chachoua had won $10 million in a lawsuit against Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for allegedly suppressing his scientific work. (He had a contract with the institution for storing and testing his vaccines.)
Court documents show that in 2000, a federal jury indeed awarded Chachoua $10,111,250 for a breach of a contract. That award was tossed out by a judge, who found that all but $11,250 of the award had been based on speculative testimony. The judge’s ruling was upheld on appeal.
Over many years, Chachoua told Maher, he has been collecting various "infections" and using them as treatments. He mentioned using certain strains of measles and mumps to fight cancer, for example.
"It's an incredibly bad idea for anyone else to try to do this," Harrington, of Treatment Action Group, said. "Broadcasting it is a danger to people with HIV who may not understand the science."
Some 16 million people worldwide are on antiretroviral medications, he added, but another 20 million need to be put on treatment. There are dozens of treatment cocktails available, he added, so if one results in side effects patients can switch to another.