In the absence of approved drugs for the novel coronavirus, some people are turning to alternative medicine, often on the advice of their governments.
This is particularly evident in China and India, two densely populated countries with a long history and tradition of touting such treatments, and where access to conventional medicine is sometimes limited.
In China, where the pandemic began, authorities baselessly claimed that traditional medicine was the key to fighting the virus. In India, where a lockdown of its 1.3 billion people is underway, the government has come under fire after claiming certain treatments could help prevent infections. And in Venezuela, where the health system is severely paralyzed, President Nicolas Maduro crashed while drinking herbal tea.
The World Health Organization had advised against taking “traditional herbal remedies” on its website. He later acknowledged that some were turning to alternative medicine “to alleviate some of the milder symptoms of COVID-19”, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said.
Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, hailed rigorous studies of alternative treatments “as we would any drug”. He said many studies were underway in China, many of which were testing traditional therapies.
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“It’s up to the people making the claim to provide the evidence,” said Dr Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who leads Charlatana website about unproven medical therapies.
On Thursday, the US National Institutes of Health warned against alternative medicine – including some herbal therapies and teas – to treat or prevent COVID-19, saying there is no evidence they work and some may be dangerous.
The Chinese government has claimed that combining herbal medicine with conventional medicine has helped the country deal with the outbreak.
Last month, China’s National Health Commission released a document on the treatment of patients with COVID-19 that included several herbal medicines claiming to relieve symptoms, including weakness and fever.
For infected patients, he prescribes, among other remedies, a “soup to cleanse and detoxify the lungs” and advocates a case-by-case assessment.
Chinese officials and state media have touted treating patients with alternative medicine. Zhong Nanshan, an epidemiologist who has advised the government, said earlier this year he was testing Chinese herbal medicines.
But some reports published in major medical journals on a large number of patients treated in China make no mention of alternative medicine. Instead, they note, treatment revolves around established methods such as respiratory support, medications to help prevent other infections such as bacterial pneumonia, and other widely accepted therapies.
Some of the alternative practices have been around for centuries. But with little to no scientific evidence that they work against COVID-19, attempts have been made to frame it as a cultural, not a scientific, issue.
Promoting treatments ‘without adequate scientific basis’ is worrying, says Dr Daniel Kuritzkes of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Some of these preparations can be toxic, damage the liver or interfere with other drugs, and “you have to work hard” to prove their safety, he said.
India is a country steeped in Ayurvedaa Hindu system of medicine that revolves around herbal remedies and dietary restrictions.
As the outbreak spread outside of China earlier this year, India’s health arm that promotes alternative medicine pushed unproven remedies to “boost the immune system”, according to an online Ministry of Health article. ‘AYUSH.
Critics prompted the government to clarify that these remedies were not a cure. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended India’s lockdown and asked citizens to “follow the instructions issued by the AYUSH ministry to boost immunity”.
The government has also recommended a single dose of a homeopathic medicine, according to Anu Kapoor, who runs a government-run homeopathic hospital in New Delhi.
But it hasn’t been shown to work, said public health expert Dr Anant Bhan. “The same standards should apply. Especially for times like this,” he said.
The Indian government’s push for alternative treatments for COVID-19, combined with bizarre claims by elected representatives of the ruling Bhartiya Janta party that urine or cow dung could offer cures, have also led to misinformation.
Last month, Modi spoke to alternative medicine professionals about the need to counter unsubstantiated claims that they could cure COVID-19. The AYUSH ministry then ordered all states to “stop and prevent publicity and publicity” of the promised remedies.