In Iran, false belief a poison fights virus kills hundreds

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Standing over the still body of an intubated 5-year-old boy wearing nothing but a plastic diaper, an Iranian health care worker in a hazmat suit and mask begged the public for just one thing: Stop drinking 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 1,000 sickened so far by ingesting methanol across the Islamic Republic, where drinking alcohol 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 the problem was even greater, giving a death toll of around 480 with 2,850 people sickened.

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 two 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 poisoning and also fight the coronavirus."

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A child wearing a face mask amid concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus commutes on a train in Tokyo on May 19, 2020. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
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HANOI, VIETNAM - MAY 19: Motorbike riders with face masks are stuck in traffic during the morning peak hour on May 19, 2020 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Though some restrictions remain in place, Vietnam has lifted the ban on certain entertainment facilities and non-essential businesses, including pubs, cinemas and spas & other tourist attractions to recover domestic tourism. On April 23, the Ministry of Transport started to increase domestic flights and trains to major destinations with limited passenger capacity. As of May 19, Vietnam has confirmed 324 cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19 ) with no deaths in the country, 263 fully recovered and no new case caused by community transmission for 33 days. (Photo by Linh Pham/Getty Images)
A passenger carrying his belongings walks to board on a bus as Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) resumed bus services after the government eased a nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, at Jubilee Bus Station (JBS) in Secunderabad, the twin city of Hyderabad on May 19, 2020. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP) (Photo by NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)
People wearing face masks walk past the China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters building (R) and a cellphone tower (L, back), used for a 5G network, on a street in Beijing on May 19, 2020. - The annual meeting of the National Peoples Congress, Chinas rubber stamp legislature, opens on May 22, after a two month delay due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP) (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)
People wearing face masks amid concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus walk in a train station in Tokyo on May 19, 2020. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
People pass by and notice cartoon dragon dolls the restaurant uses as space keepers in their booths for social distancing to help curb the spread of the coronavirus at shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, May 18, 2020. Thai authorities allowed department stores, shopping malls and other businesses to reopen from May 17, selectively easing restrictions meant to combat the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Father Jose Maria Galvan, wearing a sanitary mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 opens the door for the morning mass at St. Eugenio Church, in Rome, Monday, May 18, 2020. Italy partially lifted sanitary restrictions Monday after a two-month coronavirus lockdown. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 18, 2020: Russian Emergency Situations Ministry employees carry out disinfection of Kiyevsky Railway Station amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS (Photo by Vyacheslav Prokofyev\TASS via Getty Images)
Commuters, some wearing protective masks to protect against coronavirus travel on a Jubilee Line underground train, in London, Monday, May 18, 2020. Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last Sunday that people could return to work if they could not work from home. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Faithful wearing gloves and face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, pray during the morning mass at St. Eugenio Church, in Rome, Monday, May 18, 2020. Italy partially lifted sanitary restrictions Monday after a two-month coronavirus lockdown. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
A supporter of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro flies a Brazilian flag during a protest against the Supreme Court and Brazil's National Congress, and to back Bolsonaro's open-the-economy drive amid the pandemic, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, May 17, 2020. Bolsonaro greeted hundreds of supporters who gathered at the presidential residence to back his open-the-economy drive even as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the country. (AP Photo/Andre Borges)
A Christian wears a protective mask as she attends Mass while maintaining a social distance at the Cathedral Church of the Resurrection in Lahore, Pakistan, Sunday, May 17, 2020. Pakistani churches welcomed worshippers for Sunday Mass for the first time in nearly two months, as authorities eased restrictions imposed in March to limit the spread of coronavirus. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
Migrant workers from other states trying to return to their homes stand in queue as they wait for transportation to a train station in Ahmedabad, India, Sunday, May 17, 2020. Tens of thousands of migrant laborers have been returning from big cities to their villages after losing jobs because of a countrywide lockdown imposed in late March to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)
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For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three 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 school teacher 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 and more than 2,200 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 rumors, 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, laying 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 that manufacturers of toxic methanol add an artificial color to their products so the public can tell it apart from ethanol, the kind of alcohol that can be 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, other times it comes as methanol, falsely advertised as drinkable, Hovda said. Methanol also can contaminate traditionally fermented alcohol.

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Iran struggles to contain coronavirus
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Iran struggles to contain coronavirus
A firefighter disinfects the shrine of Saint Saleh to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in northern Tehran, Iran, Friday, March, 6, 2020. A Health Ministry spokesman warned authorities could use unspecified “force” to halt travel between major cities. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A medic treats a patient infected with the new coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020. With the approaching Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, officials kept up pressure on people not to travel and to stay home. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave Iran's new casualty figures Sunday, reiterated that people should not even attend funerals. (AP Photo/Mohammad Ghadamali)
In this Sunday, March 1, 2020 photo, a medic treats a patient infected with coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran. A member of a council that advises Iran's supreme leader died Monday after falling sick from the new coronavirus, becoming the first top official to succumb to the illness striking both citizens and leaders of the Islamic Republic. (Ali Shirband/Mizan News Agency via AP)
A medic treats a patient infected with the new coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020. With the approaching Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, officials kept up pressure on people not to travel and to stay home. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave Iran's new casualty figures Sunday, reiterated that people should not even attend funerals. (AP Photo/Mohammad Ghadamali)
In this Tuesday, March, 10, 2020 photo, paramedics work in a laboratory that tests samples taken from patients suspected of being infected with the new coronavirus, in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Iran. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (Amin Nazari/ISNA via AP)
Medics treat a patient infected with the new coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020. With the approaching Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, officials kept up pressure on people not to travel and to stay home. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave Iran's new casualty figures Sunday, reiterated that people should not even attend funerals. (AP Photo/Mohammad Ghadamali)
En esta imagen del martes 10 de marzo de 2020, paramédicos analizando muestras de pacientes sospechosos de tener el nuevo coronavirus, en un laboratorio en la ciudad suroccidental de Ahvaz, Irán. (Amin Nazari/ISNA via AP)
In this Tuesday, March, 10, 2020 photo, paramedics test samples taken from patients suspected of being infected with the new coronavirus, at a laboratory in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Iran. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (Amin Nazari/ISNA via AP)
A nurse wears protective gear in a ward dedicated for people infected with the new coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020. With the approaching Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, officials kept up pressure on people not to travel and to stay home. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave Iran's new casualty figures Sunday, reiterated that people should not even attend funerals. (AP Photo/Mohammad Ghadamali)
Relatives wearing face masks mourn over the grave of former politburo official in the Revolutionary Guard Farzad Tazari, shown in the poster, who died Monday after being infected with the new coronavirus, at the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery just outside Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Iran is the hardest-hit country in the Mideast by the new coronavirus, which sickens but largely doesn't kill those afflicted. (Mahmood Hosseini/Tasnim News Agency via AP)
Mourners wearing face masks and gloves carry the body of former politburo official in the Revolutionary Guard Farzad Tazari, who died Monday after being infected with the new coronavirus, at the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery just outside Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Iran is the hardest-hit country in the Mideast by the new coronavirus, which sickens but largely doesn't kill those afflicted. (Mahmood Hosseini/Tasnim News Agency via AP)
A nurse wears protective gear in a ward dedicated for people infected with the new coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020. With the approaching Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, officials kept up pressure on people not to travel and to stay home. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave Iran's new casualty figures Sunday, reiterated that people should not even attend funerals. (AP Photo/Mohammad Ghadamali)
Paramedics treat a patient infected with the new coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020. With the approaching Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, officials kept up pressure on people not to travel and to stay home. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave Iran's new casualty figures Sunday, reiterated that people should not even attend funerals. (AP Photo/Mohammad Ghadamali)
En esta imagen, distribuida por el cibersitio de la presidencia de Irán, miembros del gobierno se protegen con mascarillas durante una reunión del ejecutivo en Teherán, Irán, el 11 de marzo de 2020. (Oficina de la Presidencia de Irán vía AP)
Trabajadores desinfectando el santuario del imán Abdulazim, un santo chií, para ayudar a evitar la expansión de un nuevo coronavirus, en Shahr-e-Ray, al sur de Teherán, Irán, el sábado 7 de marzo de 2020. (AP Foto/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Workers disinfect the shrine of the Shiite Saint Imam Abdulazim to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Shahr-e-Ray, south of Tehran, Iran, Saturday, March, 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Workers disinfect the shrine of the Shiite Saint Imam Abdulazim to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Shahr-e-Ray, south of Tehran, Iran, Saturday, March, 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A man wearing protective gear disinfects Health Ministry headquarters because of the new coronavirus, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, March 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
In this Saturday, March 7, 2020, a man wearing protective gear calls on a phone next to the patients in a ward dedicated for people infected with the new coronavirus, at Baqiyatallah Al'Azam Hospital affiliated to the Revolutionary Guard, in Tehran, Iran. Iran is the hardest-hit country in the Mideast by the new coronavirus, which sickens but largely doesn't kill those afflicted. (Mohammad Hasan Zarifmanesh/Tasnim News Agency via AP)
Passengers wait to exit the plane after landing in Tokyo on a flight from San Francisco Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Tokyo. As cases of the coronavirus surge in Italy, Iran, South Korea, the U.S. and elsewhere, many scientists say it's plain that the world is in the grips of a pandemic — a serious global outbreak. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
In this Saturday, March 7, 2020, a patient infected with the new coronavirus is carried, at Baqiyatallah Al'Azam Hospital affiliated to the Revolutionary Guard, in Tehran, Iran. Iran is the hardest-hit country in the Mideast by the new coronavirus, which sickens but largely doesn't kill those afflicted. (Mohammad Hasan Zarifmanesh/Tasnim News Agency via AP)
A firefighter disinfects a traditional shopping center to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in northern Tehran, Iran, Friday, March, 6, 2020. A Health Ministry spokesman warned authorities could use unspecified “force” to halt travel between major cities. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A firefighter disinfects the shrine of Saint Saleh to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in northern Tehran, Iran, Friday, March, 6, 2020. A Health Ministry spokesman warned authorities could use unspecified “force” to halt travel between major cities. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A firefighter disinfects a taxi stand to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in northern Tehran, Iran, Friday, March, 6, 2020. A Health Ministry spokesman warned authorities could use unspecified “force” to halt travel between major cities.(AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A firefighter disinfects the shrine of Saint Saleh to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in northern Tehran, Iran, Friday, March, 6, 2020. A Health Ministry spokesman warned authorities could use unspecified “force” to halt travel between major cities.(AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
In this Wednesday, March. 4, 2020 photo, a Revolutionary Guard member disinfects an ATM machine to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Tehran, Iran. Wearing gas masks and waterproof fatigues, members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard now spray down streets and hospitals with disinfectants as the Islamic Republic faces one of the world's worst outbreaks of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
A firefighter disinfects public exercise equipment to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Iran has one of the highest death tolls in the world from the new coronavirus outside of China, the epicenter of the outbreak. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
In this Wednesday, March 4, 2020, photo, Revolutionary Guard members take part in disinfecting the city to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Tehran, Iran. Wearing gas masks and waterproof fatigues, members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard now spray down streets and hospitals with disinfectants as the Islamic Republic faces one of the world's worst outbreaks of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
City workers disinfect a bench because of the new coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Iran has one of the highest death tolls in the world from the new coronavirus outside of China, the epicenter of the outbreak. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
A man wearing a face mask travels on a public bus in northern Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 1, 2020. While the new coronavirus has extended its reach across the world, geographic clusters of infections were emerging, with Iran, Italy and South Korea seeing rising cases. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
In this Sunday, March 1, 2020 photo, a medic treats a patient infected with coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran. A member of a council that advises Iran's supreme leader died Monday after falling sick from the new coronavirus, becoming the first top official to succumb to the illness striking both citizens and leaders of the Islamic Republic. (Ali Shirband/Mizan News Agency via AP)
A photograph taken on March 13, 2020 shows an almost emply road in the Iranian capital Tehran, after measures were taken to slow down the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. - The outbreak of the virus in Iran is one of the deadliest outside China, where the disease originated. Several politicians and officials both sitting and former have been infected, with some dying from the illness. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/afp/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers in protective suits spray disinfectants near the gate of Shalamcha Border Crossing, after Iraq shut a border crossing to travellers between Iraq and Iran, Iraq March 8, 2020. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani
Passengers wearing protective face masks arrive from Iran, following an outbreak of the coronavirus, at Najaf airport, in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq February 26, 2020. Picture taken February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani
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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 that there are other dangers around," Hovda said. "When they keep drinking this, 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 that ban 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 4,200 liters (1,100 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 $10 for a 1.5-liter bottle. Imported vodka sells for $40 a bottle.

"Every year during Nowruz, or the Persian New Year holidays that begin March 21, my customers double," said Rafik, an Iranian-Armenian who makes vodka in the basement of his Tehran home. He spoke on the condition that only his first name be used for fear of arrest. "This year, because of corona, it jumped up by four- or five-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 liters of 99% alcohol a day.

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