March 28, 2020 – Tehran, Iran
Medical Professionals around the world have their hands full with the battle against coronavirus. In Iran, the Ministry of Health has issued a dire warning in response to a surge of patients caused by an age-old problem, methanol poisoning.
Wary of State Media that at first hid the coronavirus epidemic, Iranian citizens took to social media to expose it. Along with sharing news about the effects of COVID-19 and precautionary measures that should be taken, a surge of cures that offered false hopes were broadcast. Most involved the ingestion of toxic brews that have replaced the usual production of fake alcohol by bootleggers.
The new concoction, a tonic laced with industrial chemicals and methanol is being touted as a cure all for the effects of COVID-19. News of the ability of the illicit tonic to “kill” the virus internally began surfacing on Iranian social media in late February. International news at the time was dominated by Asian Countries who were getting a handle on mitigating the effects of the virus, Europe was exploding with cases while the first North American cases were being identified.
Iran, a country of 80 million that closely guards the news it allows to be published, began making public appeals to the people to stop drinking the falsely advertised cure. Iran’s Health Ministry stated that nearly 300 people have died and 3000 sickened by ingesting the methanol laced tonic adding to the insurmountable task of hospitals in dealing with the pandemic.
Recently, Dr. Hossein Hassanian, an advisor to the Health Ministry claimed that the numbers are underreported claiming that at least 480 people have died with over 4000 sickened people presenting to overcrowded hospitals. Many have been blinded including at least one 5 year old that has been reported to him.
In an unusual statement to the international press, Dr. Hossein Hassanian was quoted as saying, ““Other countries have only one problem, which is the new coronavirus pandemic. But we are fighting on two fronts here. We have to both cure the people with alcohol poisoning and fight the coronavirus.”
Mixed messages on social media in Iran, coupled with a poorly educated and informed population outside the major cities have led people to believe that ingesting alcohol can kill the virus internally just as alcohol based hand sanitizers can kill it on skin. Also adding to the confusion and adding validity to the claims of the bootleggers advertising on social media are stories from Europe by those that claim they have cured the virus by ingesting a mixture of whiskey and honey.
As an Islamic Republic, the production of ingestible alcohol is illegal in Iran. Methanol alcohol production is legal for industrial purposes. Iran requires that artificial coloring be added to Methanol so it can be distinguished from Ethanol, which is used for medical purposes and is also the alcohol found in ingestible beverages which are forbidden in Iran.
As in the past, bootleggers in Iran have an easy solution to using artificially colored methanol in their connections, they add bleach to dilute the coloring. This makes their drinks even more deadly as consumers are ingesting a combination of bleach and methanol.
Dr. Hossein Hassanian noted that the figures he provided, 480 dead and over 4,000 sickened, are the best he can assemble based on hospital admissions, and coroner reports, however he fears the numbers are higher. “Unfortunately, in some provinces, including Khuzestan and Fars, deaths from drinking methanol has exceeded the number of deaths from the new coronavirus,” he said.
Dr. Knut Erik Hovda, a clinical toxicologist in Oslo who is a specialist and first responder to methanol poisoning deaths around the world notes that the pandemic is hiding the number of deaths from this scourge. “The virus is spreading, and people are just dying off, and I think they are even less aware of the fact that there are other dangers around,” Hovda said. “When they keep drinking this, there’s going to be more people poisoned.”
With most of the world’s press coverage dominated by the effects of the pandemic, reports about alcohol poisoning which are usually prevalent throughout the 4th and 1st quarters of the year have been hard to assemble. The Iranian warning is an indication that the current state of world affairs has not stopped the lucrative bootleggers from prying their trade.
In Iran even mosques are now handing out high proof alcohol as hand sanitizers giving the bootleggers easy access to their key ingredient. The usual epidemic of alcohol deaths may get lumped in with those that die from COVID-19 outside of a hospital setting without any verification of the cause of death. Iran will not be alone in this problem, as the world gears up its production of methanol for sanitizers, bootleggers around the world will also be gearing up. This is especially troublesome as Health Departments around the world are noting a surge in alcohol consumption because of lockdowns, isolation, quarantine, and anxiety due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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