Cat Scratch Fever

A TV show about a curative plant sends Miami's Spanish-speaking community into a buying tizzy

Talk show host Pedro Sevcec is tramping through the Peruvian jungle, camera crew in tow, impeccably dressed, right down to his tan safari vest. "It is a symphony of greens," he observes of his surroundings, reaching for a poetic metaphor that nevertheless eludes his grasp, "here in the river basin where an army of insects circles plants that embrace each other, squeeze each other, and fight each other for space under the sun. This represents the beginning of the Amazon jungle, and is the place where you can find Cat's Claw, perhaps one of the most extraordinary phenomena of modern medicine."

Clutching his mike, Sevcec kneels gingerly on the moist earth, tapping a greenish-brown root with his free hand. "This is our point of departure," he says, gazing earnestly at the camera. "A root of Cat's Claw found on the Schuler family plantation in the heart of the Peruvian jungle. This is the beginning of a process that ends with the production of a capsule or tea that many people say has dramatically changed their lives. Some say their lives have been saved," he adds, his voice softening as he lets the words sink in.

What follows is a curious segment of Sevcec, the popular Spanish-language talk show that airs locally at 4:00 p.m. weekdays on WSCV-TV (Channel 51), the local affiliate of the Miami-based Telemundo network. Veering into territory most commonly occupied by infomercials, the host hypes the Schuler family's crop, a plant touted as a miracle cure for everything from arthritis to AIDS, not to mention myriad varieties of cancer. This hourlong show was filmed in Peru and at Telemundo's studios in Hialeah, where the South American footage was screened before a live studio audience. The episode, which first aired in February, has been repeated at least three times since.

The publicity generated by the show, coupled with a barrage of advertising in the Spanish-language media A including Telemundo A has no doubt contributed to the drug's delirious reception by local Hispanics. After his grandmother tried it and found it effective, Miami chiropractor Jose Pelayo began recommending Cat's Claw to patients suffering from arthritis and joint pain. In the past six months, Pelayo says, 100 of his patients have experimented with the remedy. "I've found that there's a positive effect from using the product," he asserts.

Unknown in the United States eighteen months ago, Cat's Claw is now a consistent seller at GNC (General Nutrition Centers) and at pharmacies that cater to a Hispanic clientele. "We get good feedback from our customers," says Lazaro Quintana, a manager of the GNC at Bayside who estimates he sells a dozen bottles of the coffee-colored capsules each week. "They continue to come in and buy it. They say this stuff is excellent." GNC staffers say most Cat's Claw customers are Spanish speakers, and clerks say business is even brisker in Hispanic neighborhoods.

Patrons often cite the product's endorsement by a Mexican actor who believes it cured him of prostrate cancer.

The actor, Andres Garcia, was prominently featured on Sevcec's show. (Not to be confused with Andy Garcia, a thespian more familiar to Miami audiences, Andres Garcia is a Tom Selleck look-alike with salt-and-pepper hair, squinty hazel eyes, and a raspy voice.)

"My first question is for you: Are you totally cured?" Sevcec asks Garcia.
"Totally cured," a grinning Garcia replies as the studio audience, composed mostly of middle-age women, applauds loudly.

The give-and-take sets a pattern for the rest of the program. An older man who had been diagnosed with sarcoma tells how the cancer began to metastasize shortly before he began taking Cat's Claw.

"Would it be valid to use the word dramatic to describe the change you experienced?" Sevcec wonders. "Was it a change like day and night?"

"Yes," the man responds, explaining that three tumors had multiplied into nine. "I didn't think I had long to live."

"And has there been a change in the number of tumors?" Sevcec persists.
"They have all disappeared," the man announces, and again the applause booms.

After several such exchanges, Sevcec resumes airing footage from his trip to the Schuler Cat's Claw fields and factories. "Many people in Peru say that this will be the start of a phenomenon that will revolutionize medicine in the last part of the Twentieth Century," he exalts, the camera panning across lush tropical foliage. Although the host delicately acknowledges that Cat's Claw has not yet been accepted by "Hippocratic medicine" -- which is to say that it has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- he refers the audience to "studies" and "analyses" of the alkaloids found in the plant. "But why complicate things with technical explanations when we still have the opportunity to see this fabulous landscape?" he concludes.

A brown tubular vine that grows in Peruvian rainforests, Cat's Claw (uncaria tomentosa wild DC) gets its name from the wickedly curved spines sparsely scattered along its length. The plant's roots are ground into powder and pasteurized to remove bacteria, then packed into gelatin capsules and marketed by several different companies in the United States. The recommended dosage is two to six capsules per day.

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