Date: Fri 27 Mar 2020
Source: AP News [edited]
Standing over the still body of an intubated 5-year-old boy wearing nothing but a plastic diaper, an Iranian healthcare worker in a hazmat suit and mask begged the public for just one thing: Stop drinking industrial alcohol [methanol, the most common industrial alcohol] over fears about the new coronavirus.
The boy, now blind after his parents gave him toxic methanol in the mistaken belief it protects against the virus, is just one of hundreds of victims of an epidemic inside the pandemic now gripping Iran.
Iranian media report nearly 300 people have been killed and more than 1000 sickened so far by ingesting methanol across the Islamic Republic, where drinking alcohol [ethanol] is banned and where those who do rely on bootleggers. An Iranian doctor helping the country's Health Ministry told the Associated Press on Friday [27 Mar 2020] the problem was even greater, giving a death toll of around 480 with 2850 people sickened. [Apparently all from methanol intoxication. - ProMed Mod.TG]
The poisonings come 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.
"Other countries have only one problem, which is the new coronavirus pandemic. But we are fighting on 2 fronts here," said Dr. Hossein Hassanian, an adviser to Iran's Health Ministry, who gave the higher figures to the AP. "We have to both cure the people with alcohol [methanol] poisoning and also fight the coronavirus."
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, clearing up in 2-3 weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or 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, home to 80 million people.
As of now, there is no known cure for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Scientists and doctors continue to study the virus and search for effective medicines and a vaccine.
But 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 sanitizers, some wrongly believed drinking high-proof alcohol would kill the virus in their bodies.
The Islamic Republic has reported over 29 000 confirmed cases [of COVID-19] and more than 2200 deaths from the virus, the highest toll of any country in the Middle East. International experts also fear Iran may be under-reporting its cases, as officials for days played 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 southwestern Khuzestan province and its southern city of Shiraz. Videos aired by Iranian media showed patients with IVs stuck in their arms, lying on beds otherwise needed for the fight against the coronavirus, including the intubated 5-year-old boy. Iranian media also reported cases in the cities of Karaj and Yazd.
In Iran, the government mandates manufacturers of toxic methanol add an artificial color to their products so the public can tell it apart from ethanol, the kind used in cleaning wounds. Ethanol is also the kind of alcohol found 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 color before selling it as drinkable. Sometimes it is mixed with consumable alcohol to stretch supply, and other times it comes as methanol, falsely advertised as drinkable. Methanol also can contaminate traditionally fermented alcohol.
Methanol cannot be smelled or tasted in drinks. It causes delayed organ and brain damage. Symptoms include chest pain, nausea, hyperventilation, blindness, and even coma.
Hassanian said his figures included reports from coroner's offices around Iran also counting those who died outside of hospitals from the poisonings.
"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, said to expect more methanol poisoning victims.
"The virus is spreading, and people are just dying off, and I think they are even less aware of the fact there are other dangers around," Hovda said. "When they keep drinking this [methanol], there's going to be more people poisoned."
Even before the outbreak, methanol poisoning had taken a toll in Iran. One academic study found methanol poisoning sickened 768 people in Iran between September and October 2018 alone, killing 76.
Other Muslim nations banning their citizens from drinking also see such methanol poisoning, although Iran appears to be the only one in the pandemic so far to turn toward it as a fake cure. In Buddhist Cambodia, police said they seized 4200 liters (1100 gallons) of methanol from a man who unwittingly planned to make toxic hand sanitizer 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 nontoxic alcohol also continues. Locally made Iranian arak from fermented raisins, known as Aragh sagi, sells for USD 10 for a 1.5 l [1.6 qt] bottle. Imported vodka sells for USD 40 a bottle.
"Every year during Nowruz, or the Persian New Year holidays beginning 21 Mar 2020, my customers double," said Rafik, an Iranian-Armenian who makes vodka in the basement of his Tehran home. He spoke on the condition only his 1st name be used for fear of arrest. "This year , because of coronavirus, it jumped up by 4- or 5-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 their production changed to pharmaceutical needs and sanitizers. Others had been left idle, like the abandoned Shams alcohol factory east of Tehran.
But now, in a time when even some mosques in Iran hand out high-proof alcohol as a sanitizer, officials plan to start work again at Shams to produce 22 000 l [23 247 qt] of 99% alcohol a day. [This alcohol is not for internal consumption but can be used in hand sanitizers. - ProMed Mod.TG] [Byline: Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell]
[Methanol toxicity initially lacks severe toxic manifestations. Its pathophysiology represents a classic example of lethal synthesis in which toxic metabolites cause fatality after a characteristic latent period. In other words, these people may not realize they are sick or ill until sometime after consumption.
Methanol is sometimes used as an ethanol substitute for alcohol. Foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, fermented beverages, and diet soft drinks containing aspartame are the primary sources of methanol in the human body, but [they contain] minute quantities.
Wood alcohol is also known as methanol. It is a commonly used toxic organic solvent causing metabolic acidosis, neurologic issues, and death when ingested. It is a part of many commercial industrial solvents and of adulterated alcoholic beverages or is mistaken as being the same as alcohol for ingestion. Methanol toxicity remains a common problem in many parts of the developing world, especially among members of lower socioeconomic classes.
Neurological complications are recognized more frequently due to advanced technologies and because of early recognition of the toxicity and advances in supportive care. Hemodialysis and better management of acid-base disturbances remain the most important therapeutic improvements.
Serum methanol levels of greater than 20 mg/dL correlate with ocular injury. Funduscopic changes are notable within only a few hours after methanol ingestion. The mechanism by which the methanol causes toxicity to the visual system is not well understood. Formic acid, the toxic metabolite of methanol, is regarded as being responsible for ocular toxicity, and blindness can occur in humans.
The prognosis in methanol poisoning correlates with the amount of methanol consumed and the subsequent degree of metabolic acidosis; more severe acidosis confers a poorer prognosis. Methanol has a relatively low toxicity. The adverse effects are thought to be from the accumulation of formic acid, a metabolite of methanol metabolism. The prognosis is further dependent on the amount of formic acid that has accumulated in the blood, with a direct correlation existing between the formic acid concentration and morbidity and mortality. Little long-term improvement can be expected in patients with neurologic complications.
The minimal lethal dose of methanol in adults is believed to be 1 mg/kg of body weight. The exact rates of morbidity and mortality from methanol intoxication are not available.
Rapid, early treatment is necessary for survival, but sequelae such as blindness may be permanent.
Metabolic acidosis in methanol poisoning may necessitate the administration of bicarbonate and assisted ventilation. Bicarbonate potentially may reverse visual deficits. In addition, bicarbonate may help to decrease the amount of active formic acid.
Antidote therapy, often using ethanol or fomepizole, is directed towards delaying methanol metabolism until the methanol is eliminated from the patient's system either naturally or via dialysis. Like methanol, ethanol is metabolized by ADH [alcohol dehydrogenase], but the enzyme's affinity for ethanol is 10-20 times higher than it is for methanol. Fomepizole is also metabolized by ADH; however, its use is limited because of high cost and lack of availability.
Hemodialysis can easily remove methanol and formic acid. Indications for this procedure include (1) greater than 30 mL [1 oz] of methanol ingested, (2) serum methanol level greater than 20 mg/dL, (3) observation of visual complications, and (4) no improvement in acidosis despite repeated sodium bicarbonate infusions.
Intravenous administration of ethanol in a 10% dextrose solution may be helpful. As ethanol prolongs the elimination half-life of methanol, the treatment may take several days, and the patient should be hospitalized. Dialysis may be necessary to prevent kidney failure as well. Hemodialysis remains an effective treatment.
Portions of this comment were extracted from
This tragic development is another example of the broader deleterious impact of a pandemic on other aspects of public health. Anecdotal reports of other potentially harmful "home remedies" for COVID-19 being hawked on the internet reminds us that education of the general public and responsible messaging are more important now than ever. - ProMed Mod.LXL]