Tehran, Iran (AP) – An Iranian health worker wearing a protective suit and mask stood over the still body of an intubated 5-year-old boy wearing only a plastic diaper and asked the public for only one thing: stop drinking alcohol over fears industrially before the new corona virus.
The boy, who is now blind after his parents gave him toxic methanol in the false belief that it protects against the virus, is only one of hundreds of victims of an epidemic within the pandemic that is now affecting Iran.
Iranian media reports that nearly 300 people across the Islamic Republic have been killed as a result of taking methanol and more than 1,000 have become ill, where drinking alcohol is prohibited and where those who rely on pirates are illegal. It is counterfeited and distributed on social media in Iran, where people remain deeply suspicious of the government after downplaying the crisis for days before overwhelming the country.
“The virus is spreading and people are dying, and I think they are even less aware of the fact that there are other dangers,” said Dr. Knut Erik Hovda, a clinical toxicologist in Oslo who is investigating methanol poisoning and fears Iran outbreak could be worse than reported. “If they keep drinking this, more people will be poisoned.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough that improve in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, this can lead to more serious illnesses, including pneumonia or death.
The pandemic has swept across the world, overwhelming hospitals, paralyzing the economy and forcing governments to restrict the movements of billions of people. Iran, where 80 million people live, was particularly affected.
In forwarded and redirected news, Iranian social media reports in Farsi incorrectly suggested that a British schoolteacher and others had cured themselves of corona virus with whiskey and honey based on a tabloid story from early February. Mixed with messages about the use of alcohol-based hand disinfectants, some mistakenly believed that drinking high-alcohol alcohol would kill the virus in their bodies.
The Islamic Republic has reported over 29,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,200 deaths from the virus, the highest number of any country in the Middle East. International experts also fear that Iran may not report its cases adequately as officials downplayed the virus for days before a general election.
This fear of the virus, coupled with poor education and Internet rumors, has resulted in dozens of alcoholic beverages in the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan and in the southern city of Shiraz. Videos broadcast by Iranian media showed patients with infusions in their arms lying on beds that were otherwise needed to fight 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 requires that toxic methanol manufacturers add an artificial color to their products so that the public can distinguish them from ethanol, the type of alcohol that can be used to clean wounds. Ethanol is also the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, although its production is illegal in Iran.
Some pirates in Iran use methanol and add a dash of bleach to mask the added color before selling it as drinkable. Sometimes it is mixed with consumable alcohol to extend supply, sometimes it comes as methanol, which is falsely advertised as drinkable, Hovda said. Methanol can also 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.
“Rumor has it that alcohol can wash and disinfect the digestive system,” said Dr. Javad Amini Saman in the western Iranian city of Kermanshah, where dozens were hospitalized. “This is very wrong.”
Even before the outbreak, methanol poisoning in Iran had taken a toll. An academic study found that methanol poisoning alone made 768 people in Iran sick and killed 76 people in Iran between September and October 2018.
Other Muslim nations that ban their citizens from drinking also see such methanol poisoning, although Iran appears to be the only one in the pandemic who has so far been acting as a false cure. In Buddhist Cambodia, the police said they had confiscated 4,200 liters of methanol from a man who unwittingly intended to produce toxic hand disinfectants because of the virus outbreak.
Muslim drinkers in Iran can face fines and 80 lashes. However, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians from minorities can drink alcoholic beverages privately.
While the police occasionally announce busts of alcohol, the trade in non-toxic alcohol continues. The locally-made Iranian arak from fermented raisins, known as Aragh Sagi, costs $ 10 for a 1.5-liter bottle. Imported vodka costs $ 40 a bottle.
“Every year during Nowruz or the Persian New Year holidays that start on March 21, my customers double,” said Rafik, an Iranian-Armenian man who makes vodka in the basement of his home in Tehran. He spoke on the condition that only his first name be used for fear of arrest. “This year it increased four or five times because of the corona.”
Farhad, a self-described heavy drinker living in central Tehran, said alcohol is still easy to find for those looking for it.
“Even you can find it offered if you walk down the street,” he said.
Since 1979 the production in the 40 Iranian alcohol factories has been converted to pharmaceutical needs and disinfectants. Others had remained idle, such as the abandoned Shams alcohol factory east of Tehran.
But now, at a time when even some mosques in Iran are using high-percentage alcohol as a disinfectant, officials are planning to resume work at Shams to produce 22,000 liters of 99% alcohol a day.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The associated press clerk Sopheng Cheang from Phnom Penh, Cambodia contributed to this.
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science is supported by the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.