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OD’ing on ‘desperate remedies’ for Covid-19

TV Jayan | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 16, 2020

Exercise caution: Watch what you drink | Credits: ISTOCK.COM

The fear of Covid-19 is pushing many to try a slew of so-called natural immunity boosters, but doctors warn of the dangers of untested self-medication

It was a simple procedure, so when the patient started bleeding on the operating table, Bengaluru-based eye surgeon Dr Raghuraj Hegde and his team couldn’t understand why.

The patient had been admitted for a tear-duct surgery. “But blood was oozing continuously,” Dr Hegde says. “It was as if he was taking blood thinners. But that couldn’t have been the case as we’d tested him to see if there was any issue relating to blood coagulation three weeks before the operation. It hadn’t revealed anything,” he says.

The procedure was successful, despite the bleeding, and the surgeon later found out that the otherwise healthy patient was taking a herbal concoction for boosting immunity against the novel coronavirus, the pathogen responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. And that had worked like a blood thinner.

Dr Hegde now adds one more probing question to his pre-surgical evaluations. He wants to know if patients are taking any supplementary medicines other than those prescribed by a qualified doctor. And if they have been doing so, they are urged to stop the supplements at least a week before the procedure.

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a climate of fear. It has no cure and an effective vaccine is months away. Not surprisingly, people are trying out any so-called remedy or preventive measure that they hear of, even if its efficacy has not been scientifically proven.

Since many are natural products or herbs of everyday use, people tend to believe that they are safe. But that is not always the case.

“We have to remember that just because something is natural, we cannot consume any amount of it. There is an optimal amount that one should take,” says Reetika Sud, a researcher with the Bengaluru-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences.

Social media platforms have numerous so-called gurus holding forth on the efficacy of everything from chewing cumin seeds to drinking warm water with lemon juice to fight Covid-19. “Misinformation spreads fast because it appeals to a bias that people already have... you do not question it,” says Sud, a member of Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19 (ISRC), a group created to bust Covid-19 hoaxes.

ISRC works closely with a global initiative called Verified, recently launched by the United Nations (in collaboration with Purpose, a leading social mobilisation organisation), to combat the increasing burden and rapid spread of misinformation around Covid-19 by promoting and sharing reliable information.

In a paper recently published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, an international team of researchers had said they had scoured social media and identified over 2,300 instances of rumours, stigmas and conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19 from 87 countries. Nearly 80 per cent of these claims turned out to be false.

“Misinformation fueled by rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and community if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines,” said the scientists led by Md Saiful Islam, an infectious disease expert at the Dhaka-based International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b).

Significantly, they found nearly 400 of these messages emanated from India, followed by over 300 from the US.

There are other related problems as well. Take, for instance, herbal concoctions prepared with various spices at home. These are seen as common antidotes to cold and fever in the north. “For some, however, consuming such herbal formulations gives a false sense of security. Then you wouldn’t do the right thing which is absolutely necessary for protection — such as wearing a mask, hand washing or keeping a safe distance from others,” says Dr Sumit Ray, head of critical medicine at Holy Family Hospital, New Delhi.

To top it, there is a misconception that Ayurvedic formulations do not have any side-effects, he points out. “Some of these preparations have heavy metals in them, which can be toxic to the liver as well as the kidney. Unsupervised amounts can possibly lead to toxicity,” he observes.

Ayurveda physician Sanil Kumar, president of the Kerala Ayurvedic Co-operative Society Ltd, urges people not to take these preparations being shared on social media without proper expert advice. “Experts can advise them on the right dosages, and any deviation can be potentially dangerous,” Dr Kumar says.

The fear of catching the virus is making people act unreasonably, the health experts point out. “People who have been asked to take, say, 500 mg of something, in overenthusiasm, end up taking three or four times the amount a day, leading to unnecessary build-up [of an element] in the body, which in turn may harm other organs,” Dr Ray says.

This could be true for vitamin supplements and over-the-counter drugs, too. People, for instance, have been taking large doses of calcium because they have heard it can help battle Covid-19. But, as Sud points out, the body has no mechanism to excrete calcium; if taken in excess it gets deposited in the body and can later develop into stones.

Taking too many vitamin supplements can harm the system, too. “Prolonged use of high-dose vitamin C and zinc can affect the kidneys, particularly if one is on the verge of kidney dysfunction,” Dr Ray warns.

Seema Gulati, head of nutrition research group at the Centre for Nutrition and Metabolic Research and National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation, New Delhi, stresses that there is no magic pill to boost immunity.

“There is a lack of scientific data to show the beneficial effect of supplementation of any specific vitamin on immunity. Good immunity can be achieved by following a balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, adequate sleep, managing stress, controlling alcohol and tobacco consumption, and maintaining proper hygiene,” she says.

TV Jayan

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Published on October 16, 2020
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