RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - In Brazil, home to the world’s second worst coronavirus outbreak, one thing seems to be spreading faster than the virus: the suspect, and sometimes strange, strategies to treat it.
Suggestions for countless improvised remedies are transmitted by WhatsApp, Facebook or old-fashioned word of mouth.
Sometimes, messages encourage the use of mainstream medication like malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro - like his ally U.S. President Donald Trump - has promoted, despite little evidence of its effectiveness against COVID-19.
But just as often, they lean towards the eccentric: from beans with magical powers to aspirin dissolved in hot honey.
“I got the coronavirus, but I treated myself solely with medicinal herbs,” said Beth Cheirosinha, a pink-haired street vender in the northern city of Belem.
“I got some cotton leaves and wormseed. I mashed it up in a blender, mixed it with honey and drank a half cup three times a day,” she added in front of her market stall, where she is selling the mixture. Business is booming, she said.
Latin America’s largest nation is no stranger to misinformation but medical professionals warn that it has rarely been as dangerous as the unproven cures being pedalled during the pandemic.
It is unclear how these quack remedies originate, though experts say widespread anxiety is a key ingredient, especially when politicians give conflicting messages or dismiss the advice of medical professionals.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro has dismissed the coronavirus as a “little flu” and said his history as an athlete makes him immune to the worst of the illness.
COVID-19 has now killed more than 45,000 people in Brazil, more than anywhere except the United States, and confirmed cases are approaching 1 million.
Unusual suggested coronavirus ‘cures’ received by Reuters reporters on WhatsApp in recent weeks include the consumption of fruits like avocados and pineapples.
Another message suggested the novel coronavirus naturally vibrates at a frequency of 5.5 megahertz. Among the things that can kill it are “unconditional love,” which, the message said, naturally vibrates at 205 megahertz.
In the Amazon, villagers are relying on herbal remedies like tea of jambu, which is usually used to treat toothache.
Natália Leal, content director of Agencia Lupa, a fact-checking website, said Brazil was a world leader in terms of coronavirus misinformation. An analysis done by the website drawing on around 100 fact-checkers indicated Brazil had produced by far the most inaccurate posts related to the number of coronavirus deaths and cases of any country worldwide.
Reuters did not find any accounts of patients falling dangerously ill from fantastical cures, but doctors said some Brazilians are ignoring medical advice on social distancing and instead relying on unproven remedies.
It does not help, said Natália Pasternak, a biologist and head of the Question of Science Institute, a Sao Paulo think-tank, that Bolsonaro has frequently promoted unproven treatments.
Last week, for example, Bolsonaro said he would order the Health Ministry to meet with one of his supporters who claimed raw garlic cures COVID-19. He has since promoted anti-parasitic medication ivermectin as “even better than chloroquine.”
One study found that ivermectin can kill the coronavirus in 48 hours in a laboratory setting, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it should not be taken as prevention or treatment for COVID-19.
Bolsonaro’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“There are certain people looking to create confusion around information, and it ends up generating uncertainty,” said Fábio Malini, a professor at the Espirito Santo Federal University, who studies online disinformation.
He said one person on a WhatsApp group for parents at his childrens’ school asked about ivermectin last week.
To Malini’s surprise, many parents had already given the medication to their children.
Reporting by Gram Slattery, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien
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