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[KAMPALA] An imminent court case in Uganda will bring into sharp focus the problem of ensuring that HIV/AIDS patients in developing nations get access to effective drugs.

It could also signal the end of the road for Elahi Allahgholi. The Uganda-based Iranian was arrested last month for making and selling — without approval from the National Drug Authority — what he claimed was an HIV-cure.

Allahgholi appeared in court last week (11 May) to hear the charges against him. His trial is due to start on 23 June.

Since 2004, Allahgholi has courted controversy by claiming that his herbal remedy — called Khomeini — can cure HIV/AIDS.

At up to three million shillings (US$1,650) per dose, the treatment was not cheap. But in a country where only 65,000 of the 1.5 million people infected with HIV get access to antiretroviral drugs, some 400 people have been willing to pay the price.

According to the Ugandan authorities, however, Khomeini is a sham medicine made of olive oil and honey. They banned its sale last month.

Grace Nambatya, director of research at the Natural Chemotherapeutic Research Laboratory, told SciDev.Net that tests by Mulago Hospital, the Uganda Virus Research Institute and the UK-based Medical Research Council proved that Khomeini was neither a drug nor a cure.

Last month, Nambatya told a radio programme that the authorities had concluded that Allahgholi was taking advantage of sick people.

Last week, 76 of Allahgholi's clients sent a petition to Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni to protest against the ban on Khomeini and to call for the government to subsidise access to it.

It is not the first time that a supposed HIV cure has caused controversy in Uganda.

In 1998, the government banned a pill developed by a Ugandan doctor and marketed as an HIV/AIDS therapy. Last year, the pill was approved for sale but only as a vitamin supplement and not as a drug.

In the early 1990s, a woman known as Nanyonga sparked a craze for eating soil after she claimed it could cure HIV/AIDS.