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.

Although the U.S. government requires an extensive testing and approval process for new drugs, products such as Cat's Claw capsules can be legally sold as dietary supplements as long as no explicit claims are made on labels or packaging as to their efficacy as a drug. (The label on a bottle of Cat's Claw purchased at GNC identifies the substance as an herbal tea and a product of Peru. A university in Innsbruck, Austria, is cited as a "world leader" in Cat's Claw research.)

"There are no studies that I am aware of that [Cat's Claw] does or does not do anything," asserts Dr. Corklin Steinhart, medical director of Mercy Hospital's Special Immunology Services and an AIDS treatment specialist. "It's being used by a lot of our patients in South Florida, and a lot of them will say they feel better, but it's difficult to say whether it's the medication or the placebo effect." Steinhart says he plans to undertake his own pilot study to find out whether the product is safe, and whether there is any scientific evidence to back claims that it boosts the immune systems of patients who are HIV-positive or helps repress the HIV virus.

Although Luis and Beatriz Schuler, whom Sevcec identifies on his program as the son and daughter of Cat's Claw "discoverer" Oscar Schuler Egg, don't explicitly describe their product as an AIDS cure, they do market it as an antioxidant capable of regenerating damaged cells.

"What does it do? It regenerates the cells," Beatriz Schuler explains to Sevcec. "It purifies the blood. It expels all the deteriorated cells we have in our bodies. It helps the body attain full potential. What does it do? It helps us to oxygenate the parts which have been destroyed."

"How many people throughout the years have told you that they were cured of something because of Cat's Claw?" Sevcec asks Luis Schuler. "I'm not asking you for an exact figure, but are we talking tens, hundreds, thousands?"

"Thousands," Schuler answers emphatically.
During each commercial break throughout the show, a toll-free telephone number is flashed on the screen, with an offer of 60-capsule bottles of Oscar Schuler Egg, Inc. Cat's Claw for $29.95 apiece. (Other brands sell for as little as $19.95 per bottle.)

Reached by telephone in California, Pedro Sevcec says that until recently, the product was also available through an employee of his show, who began selling Cat's Claw without his knowledge. "She had permission from the show's executive producer to sell Cat's Claw as long as she did not do it from Telemundo," says Sevcec, adding that the employee has since ceased to peddle the product. The talk show host says he didn't originally intend to do a segment about Cat's Claw, but that an earlier show about Andres Garcia and his recovery from cancer generated such a huge audience response that he decided to go ahead with a second show about the supposed miracle cure. He confesses that he is uncomfortable with the repeated airing of the segment because he does not want to be perceived as endorsing Cat's Claw.

Claudia Farrell, a spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission who has not seen the Cat's Claw segment, says it might be construed as an advertisement for the product and may expose Telemundo to charges of deceptive or fraudulent advertising.

"The Federal Trade Commission monitors advertising for things that might be considered over-the-counter drugs," Farrell explains. "An advertisement is something that induces someone to purchase a product. We have moved against a lot of companies for making efficacy claims that were not supported by reliable scientific evidence." She adds that anecdotal endorsements, such as those that aired on Sevcec, are not considered reliable or scientific evidence. (Telemundo management did not respond to calls requesting comment for this story.)

Counters the host: "I don't think what we did was advertising, and from my heart I know that was not my intention."

In August the Florida Attorney General's Office opened an investigation into Cat's Claw advertisements. Jose Gonzalez, the assistant attorney general who is handling the case, says he is looking into Cat's Claw advertising in all different forms of media -- including the Sevcec segment itself. "Basically what we're looking to see is whether there's any deception involved," Gonzalez says.

"If this is being sold as a serious treatment option for cancer, then it is obscene and it is dishonest," declares Dr. Luis Villa, president of the League Against Cancer, a nonprofit organization that assists cancer patients. "We don't even know the chemical composition. There is no quality control. We don't know how it is being purified, or if it is being purified at all. It may be dangerous and it may be toxic, but we have no data."

Moreover, Villa says, the claims made by Cat's Claw proponents are all too familiar. "Every four or five years there's a cure-it-all from the jungles of South America," he observes. "Unfortunately, none of them has ever been shown to be effective.

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