JEDDAH: Out of the fear and despair generated by the coronavirus, people are clinging to a shred of hope to feel safe, believing and turning to any means to protect themselves during the lockdown.
It is not unusual, in normal times, for social media users to receive messages about misleading herbal concoctions that claim to protect against contracting certain diseases, and treat disorders such as diabetes or hypothyroidism. With the outbreak of the coronavirus in the Kingdom, there are even more such baseless claims circulating.
Many rumors have surfaced on social media of home remedies that claim to protect against contracting the infection and even to cure it. Some of these rumors range from drinking herbal teas to washing your hands and face with bleach. Many are baseless remedies with little or no studies to confirm them, yet many people use them as “preventive measure” alongside the hand washing and social distancing recommended by medical experts.
Dr. Amani Al-Omair, head of the nutrition department at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Al-Ahsa, told Arab News that the tendency for false rumors to spread had worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic as many users were receiving and forwarding ambiguous concoctions and recommendations for herbal teas as a preventive measure.
“WhatsApp remedy rumors, or what I like to call Dr. WhatsApp prescriptions, are really annoying, and worsened when the coronavirus appeared in Saudi Arabia. The rumors became more contradictory than ever before because there are a lot of rumors going around globally, and unfortunately, many believe and trust anonymous WhatsApp messages more than scientific findings from specialized doctors,” Dr. Amani said.
One of the most popular rumors on WhatsApp and several social media platforms promotes herbal teas and similar concoctions as a cure for the virus. These so-called “remedies” are not based on scientific or medical recommendations as many are local herbal mixtures — and just because they are natural does not mean that they are not harmful.
Some herbs are known for their antioxidant properties, anti-diabetic effect, anti-inflammatory effects and more, but some of the rumored concoctions can have mild to severe side effects.
Dr. Amani said that people sending message or pictures must always mention the source or else they would be contributing to an increase in the spread of misinformation and rumors.
“A person may apply it and it will cause him harm and complications, or worse, it may cost him his life.”
Dr. Mona Al-Fares, an infectious disease consultant at King Abdul Aziz University Hospital, told Arab News that that the danger lay not only in taking these concoctions as a preventive measure against contracting the coronavirus. Many home remedies not based on medical studies or provided by a consultant could have severe adverse effects.
“Patients who use home remedies that are not backed by scientific studies or medical experts while using medication to control disorders could see negative effects due to the unknown effects. Honey is a time-honored way to soothe a sore throat, for example, but we can’t expect a diabetic to take 10 spoons of honey every day. If it’s not controlled, it will affect the body’s sugar level as they have to manage their sugar intake. The same goes with a viral infection such as the coronavirus; there is no linkage.”
A growing number of people are using herbal products for preventive and therapeutic purposes, but the adverse affects and drug interactions associated with herbal remedies are largely unknown. Herbal products are not tested with the scientific rigor required for conventional drugs and are not subject to the approval process of, for example, the US Food and Drug Administration.
Unlike conventional drugs, herbal products are not regulated for purity and potency. The potency of a herbal product can increase the possibility of adverse effects.
The toxic side effects of herbal medicines used in traditional societies as alternative medications or immune boosters are not widely known.
“We’re all born with unique immune systems and you can’t boost your immunity in a week or two,” said Dr. Hanan Al-Turkistani, an infectious disease consultant at King Abdullah Medical City in Makkah.
“We work on improving our immune system by acquiring healthy habits and lifestyle, good sleep as well as keeping fit by exercising. We can strengthen gradually but it’s a system and requires balance, and general health strategies are a start.”
Dr. Hanan said that there was no secret herb or tea that could boost or “support” the health of the immune system.
“Some of these so-called remedies have been found to alter some components of the immune function, and there is no evidence that has proven they bolster a patient’s immunity to protect them against the coronavirus infection,” said Dr. Hanan.
“It’s a very complicated matter and the fact remains that we don’t know the effects of these herbs and potions as they require extensive research. Patients should always refer to their primary physician and follow their doctor’s recommendations, especially if they want to use herbal remedies as supplements — but never as an alternative.”
The popularity among lay persons of improving the body’s immune system against coronavirus is the main reason for consuming herbal remedies. Debunking these myths by using evidence-based methods is the proper approach.
“Taking vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and more without returning to your primary physician is not an established approach against the coronavirus,” said Dr. Hanan.
“Vitamin C will not protect you or have a long-term effect; there is simply no evidence to back up this claim.”
Dr. Taher Tariq Al-Qutub, a family medicine specialist at the National Guards Hospital in King Abdullah Medical City, Jeddah, said that dietary changes could help to boost the immune system but not cure the virus. Adequate sleep, drinking water, playing sports and healthy eating were the keys to a healthy immune system.
“There is nothing that protects people from the virus except the known actions such as washing your hands and social distancing. People must follow the instructions given by the Ministry of Health,” he told Arab News.
“It’s very dangerous to rely on remedy rumors. One may follow them thinking they are protected from the virus and then — God forbid — contract the virus and spread it to those around them,” he said.
Al-Qutub urged people to gain their information from reliable sources such as the Ministry of Health, World Health Organization and verified medical accounts and websites, or to speak to qualified doctors directly.