Hundreds of Iranians die ingesting methanol based on false notions about fighting virus

Some wrongly believed drinking high-proof alcohol would kill the virus in their bodies.
Sunday 29/03/2020
Iranian firefighters disinfect a square against the new coronavirus in western Tehran. (AP)
Iranian firefighters disinfect a square against the new coronavirus in western Tehran. (AP)

TEHRAN - Standing over the still body of an intubated 5-year-old boy wearing nothing but a plastic diaper, an Iranian health-care worker in a hazmat suit and mask begged the public for just one thing: Stop drinking industrial alcohol over fears about the new coronavirus.

The boy, blind after his parents gave him toxic methanol in the mistaken belief it protects against the virus, is one of hundreds of victims of an epidemic inside the pandemic gripping Iran.

Iranian media reported that nearly 300 people had died and more than 1,000 others had been sickened by ingesting methanol across Iran, where drinking alcohol is banned and where those who do rely on bootleggers. It comes as fake remedies spread across social media in Iran, where people remain deeply suspicious of the government after it downplayed the crisis for days before it overwhelmed the country.

“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,” said Dr Knut Erik Hovda, a clinical toxicologist in Oslo who studies methanol poisoning and said he fears Iran’s outbreak could be worse than reported. “When they keep drinking this, there’s going to be more people poisoned.”

For most people, coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

The pandemic has swept across the world, overwhelming hospitals, crippling economies and forcing governments to restrict the movements of billions of people. Particularly hard hit has been Iran.

There is no known cure for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Scientists and doctors study the virus and search for effective medicines and a vaccine.

However, in messages forwarded and forwarded again, Iranian social media accounts in Farsi falsely suggested a British schoolteacher and others cured themselves of the coronavirus with whiskey and honey, based on a tabloid story from early February.

Mixed with messages about the use of alcohol-based hand sanitiser, some wrongly think drinking high-proof alcohol would kill the virus in their bodies.

Iran has reported more than 35,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,500 deaths from the virus, the highest toll of any country in the Middle East. International experts fear Iran may be under-reporting its cases, as officials for days play down the virus ahead of a parliamentary election.

That fear of the virus, coupled with poor education and internet rumours, saw dozens sickened by drinking bootleg alcohol containing methanol in Iran’s south-western Khuzestan province and its southern city of Shiraz. Videos on Iranian media showed patients, with intravenous needles in their arms, lying on beds needed for the fight against the coronavirus, including the intubated 5-year-old boy. Iranian media reported other cases in Karaj and Yazd.

In Iran, the government mandates that manufacturers of toxic methanol add artificial colour to their products so the public can tell it apart from ethanol, the kind of alcohol used in cleaning wounds. Ethanol is also the alcohol in alcoholic beverages, though its production is illegal in Iran.

Some bootleggers in Iran use methanol, adding a splash of bleach to mask the added colour before selling it as drinkable. Sometimes it is mixed with consumable alcohol to stretch supply, other times it comes as methanol, falsely advertised as drinkable, Hovda said. Methanol can contaminate traditionally fermented alcohol.

Methanol is odourless and tasteless when added to drinks. It causes organ and brain damage. Symptoms include chest pain, nausea, hyperventilation, blindness and coma.

“It is rumoured that alcohol can wash and sanitise the digestive system,” said Dr Javad Amini Saman in Iran’s western city of Kermanshah, where dozens have been hospitalised, “That is very wrong.”

Even before the outbreak, methanol poisoning had taken a toll in Iran. One academic study concluded that methanol poisoning sickened 768 people in Iran in September and October 2018, killing 76.

Other Muslim countries that ban citizens from drinking alcohol also report methanol poisoning, although Iran appears to be the only one in the pandemic to turn towards it as a fake cure. In Buddhist Cambodia, police said they seized 4,200 litres of methanol from a man who unwittingly planned to make toxic hand sanitiser because of the virus outbreak.

Muslim drinkers in Iran can be punished with cash fines and 80 lashes. However, minority Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians can drink alcoholic beverages in private.

While police occasionally announce alcohol busts, the trade in non-toxic alcohol continues. Locally made Iranian arak from fermented raisins, known as Aragh sagi, sells for $10 for a 1.5-litre bottle. Imported vodka sells for $40 a bottle.

“Every year during Nowruz, or the Persian New Year holidays that begin March 21, my customers double,” said Rafik, an Iranian Armenian who makes vodka in the basement of his Tehran home. He spoke on the condition that only his first name be used for fear of arrest. “This year, because of corona, it jumped up by four- or five-fold.”

Farhad, a self-described heavy drinker who lives in central Tehran, said alcohol remains easy to find for those looking for it.

“Even you can find it offered when you are walking down the street,” he said.

Since 1979, Iran’s 40 alcohol factories have seen production changed to pharmaceutical needs and sanitisers. Others had been left idle, like the abandoned Shams alcohol factory east of Tehran.

Now, in a time when even some mosques in Iran hand out high-proof alcohol as a sanitiser, officials plan to start work again at Shams to produce 22,000 litres of 99% alcohol a day.