Just as scientists around the globe are working overtime to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, many ordinary folk fearful of the new coronavirus are turning to myths and home remedies — often culled from the internet — to protect themselves against the respiratory disease that has already killed more than 27,000 worldwide.
In Iran, nearly 300 have died and more than 1,000 have fallen ill after ingesting methanol, believing that high-proof alcohol would sanitize their digestive system and kill the virus in their bodies. More than 2,300 have died of COVID-19 in Iran, the highest death toll in the Middle East, while 32,000 have been reported infected.
Drinking alcohol is prohibited in the country, but bootlegs still abound, and with panic fueled by the rising number of COVID-19 deaths, people are taking risks and circumventing the law to try to cure themselves of the virus.
In Thailand, long queues formed at a traditional medical center under the Ministry of Public Health to buy the medicinal herb fa talai jone, or andrographis, long used in traditional Chinese medicine and touted to “prevent the virus from entering cells, reduces virus cell division, boosts immunity, and ameliorates lung inflammation from viral infection.” However, Thai experts and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that there is no scientific evidence to support such claims.
Even leaders have fallen for unverified reports of COVID-19 remedies.
Last March 19, US President Donald Trump falsely suggested that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared chloroquine — a drug used to treat malaria — as a COVID-19 treatment, calling it a “gift from God.” The FDA immediately issued a clarification that the drug still needs to be tested as a cure for coronavirus, but a few days later, a man from Arizona died while his wife went into critical condition after they self-medicated with chloroquine phosphate.
Authorities in the United States —where COVID-19 cases have topped 100,000, making it the highest in the world — have warned the public against self-medication. The dangerous chloroquine claim also reached Nigeria, where three patients overdosed on the antimalaria drug.
Here at home, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, citing articles he read on the internet, batted for eating bananas to kill the coronavirus; he also promoted gargling salt water. Last February, with claims circulating on social media that exposure to the sun, taking a hot bath, or having hot drinks, among others, would combat the illness, Panelo’s boss, President Duterte, casually dismissed the coronavirus threat, saying it would “die a natural death.”
The WHO has busted these myths on its website. Taking a bath with “extremely hot water can be harmful as it can burn you,” it warned. Rinsing the nose with saline has not been shown to prevent respiratory infections, despite “some limited evidence” that it can help people recover from the common cold. Neither is spraying alcohol nor chlorine all over the body a remedy; in fact, “spraying such substances can be harmful to clothes or mucous membranes (i.e., eyes, mouth),” said the WHO. And while alcohol and chlorine can be useful to disinfect surfaces, they need to be used under appropriate recommendations. More bogus remedies: the use of hand dryer or ultraviolet disinfection lamp, taking pneumonia vaccines or antibiotics, and eating garlic.
“To date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus,” said the WHO. This has not stopped unscrupulous people from selling fake cures. Just last week, the Philippine National Police arrested a father and son who were selling fake medicine over the internet. Rappler also fact-checked a Facebook post claiming that a vaccine that could “cure a patient within three hours after injection” was already available.
As of March 20, there are 42 candidate vaccines for clinical evaluation in laboratories across the world, including drugs that have been used to cure HIV and malaria. But it would take a long process — at least 18 months, experts say — before an approved vaccine could go into production and distribution.
In the absence of a cure and with no mass testing being done to identify those infected, the best defense the ordinary Filipino has against COVID-19 can only be mindful behavior: physical distancing, the regular washing of hands, proper etiquette when coughing or sneezing, building resistance, staying home (especially PUIs and PUMs) — though the painful social reality is not everyone has the means or circumstances to observe these guidelines.
At all times but especially during public health emergencies, it is paramount to listen to health experts and reject fake news about fake cures, whether peddled by Presidents or charlatans alike.
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