Save your money and protect your health — debunking coronavirus quackery in Cuenca

Mar 15, 2020 | 2 comments

Last week I reposted an article about food safety — this advice is relevant all year ’round, and certainly now that we all must take extra care to avoid contamination with the COVID-19 respiratory virus.

I linked to Brenda Langdon’s important article about this contagion, and her wise prevention advice. Read it here.
Readers who chose to comment uniformly appreciated these informational columns, except for one self-described “doctor” who posted misinformation and potentially dangerous advice, and who insists that a myriad of “natural” supplements and substances would protect against the virus and also ‘boost’ immunity sufficiently to protect from catching the virus. Without posting any credible evidence, this person assures readers that “medical drugs and intervention” are more likely to kill you.

Of course, those with weakened immunity are more vulnerable to viruses, beginning with the common cold, however, “boosting immunity” doesn’t come from ingesting copious amounts of micronutrients and other supplements. Good health is enhanced with certain daily living behaviors — eating a whole foods diet, avoiding excessive alcohol, not smoking and staying away from environmental hazards, managing stress, getting daily activity. And preventing infection is helped by following Ms. Langdon’s advice to be vigilant in handwashing, avoiding crowds, etc.

At the same time, I’ve been receiving many emails asking my advice on preventing the virus — it appears that there are many quacks out there, a quack defined as “anyone who knowingly practices deception or misrepresentation” such as someone who sells or recommends a supplement or product that claims to “cure” a condition or disease without evidence.

Why are people asking me? Everyone knows that I’m a registered dietitian and not a medical doctor, but still, people are worried and want to know what they can do. Which makes them especially vulnerable to quackery and misinformation. While all quacks are misinformed, not all misinformed are quacks.

Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients that are catalysts for the thousands of chemical reactions our bodies perform daily, but they work like an orchestra, and taking excessive doses of any single one can produce an unhealthy imbalance. And unproven cures for the coronavirus abound, from laser light therapy to ingesting toxic metals.

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Here are some top quackery claims that I’ve been asked about and posted by the said ‘doctor’ and others.

Zinc: ConsumerLab.com writes supplementing with zinc (such as with regular tablets) would not benefit most people unless they are deficient in zinc, which is more common in elderly people due to reduced zinc absorption. In such people, supplementing with zinc (e.g. 20 mg per day) may improve the chance of avoiding respiratory tract infection, as suggested by a study of elderly people in nursing facilities in France. Others who may be low in zinc include vegetarians and people taking certain medications, such as those that reduce stomach acid and ACE inhibitors, on a long-term basis. The daily requirement for zinc varies by age, but, for adults, it is about 11 mg.

Be aware that typical daily doses of zinc provided by zinc lozenges generally exceed tolerable upper limits for zinc, and for this reason, they should not be used for longer than about a week. Excessive intake of zinc can cause copper deficiency. Zinc can impair the absorption of antibiotics, and the use of zinc nasal gels or swabs has been linked to temporary or permanent loss of smell.

Vitamin C: Necessary for the function of leukocytes (white blood cells that help to fight infections) and overall immune system health. Vitamin C is also important for iron absorption and being deficient in iron can make you more vulnerable to infections in general. The American Red Cross notes that when you eat heme iron with foods higher in non-heme iron, the iron will be more completely absorbed by your body. Foods high in vitamin C – like tomatoes, citrus fruits and red, yellow and orange peppers – can also help with the absorption of non-heme iron. Taking too much zinc, magnesium, calcium or copper can inhibit iron absorption because they compete with iron absorption.

LiveScience.com writes that vitamin C supplements do not ward off the common cold in most people, and there’s even less evidence that they grant immunity against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.  ConsumerLab.com writes there is no evidence that taking a vitamin C supplement, even at high doses, can protect people from infection from coronaviruses. This strategy is being promoted on various websites and in videos on YouTube. For example, one video recommended taking a daily dose of 5,000 mg of vitamin C. It has since been removed for violating YouTube’s community guidelines (likely as part of an effort by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to eliminate misinformation about Covid-19 online, although new posts and promotions for fake coronavirus cures and scams seem to appear daily). High doses of vitamin C, given intravenously, are currently being tested in Covid-19 patients in China who have developed pneumonia, but the benefit of this approach has yet to be proven.

Be aware that there are side effects and risks associated with taking high doses of vitamin C. People sometimes assume there is no harm in taking large doses because vitamin C is water-soluble (i.e. excess vitamin C is excreted from the body), but this is not the case. In addition to causing gastric distress and diarrhea, high doses of vitamin C over the long-term may increase the risk of cataracts. High-dose vitamin C can also reduce the effectiveness of certain medications and interfere with certain blood tests. Read more from LiveScience.com here. Read more from ConsumerLab.com here.

Missouri is suing a televangelist who falsely suggested on his show that colloidal silver could cure coronavirus patients
Credit: Insider.com

Colloidal Silver: Jim Bakker, the televangelist who fell from grace after a fraud conviction and sex scandal, has been peddling colloidal silver solutions and falsely claiming that it will, “will totally eliminate it, kill it, deactivate it.” The “doctor” who commented on my column advises ingesting a teaspoon of colloidal silver every eight hours.

The Mayo Clinic writes, “Colloidal silver isn’t considered safe or effective for any of the health claims manufacturers make. Silver has no known purpose in the body. Nor is it an essential mineral, as some sellers of silver products claim.” There is no credible evidence that colloidal silver will “boost your immune system, fight bacteria and viruses” or treat cancer, HIV/AIDS, shingles, herpes, eye ailments, and prostatitis. Although as an ingredient in a topical skin medication, it may be effective to treat burns, skin wounds or infections. By mouth, it can cause argyria, a bluish-gray discoloration of the skin, which is usually permanent; it can cause poor absorption of medicines, and cause kidney damage, stomach distress, and headaches. And it does not prevent the coronavirus.
Read more from the Mayo Clinic here.

Sipping Water: Two different people asked me if sipping water every 15 minutes will prevent the virus from spreading in your body. Where did you get this suggestion? Of course, staying hydrated is essential for good health. But drinking more water will not “flush” the virus from your system! Unfortunately, Colombian neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás is credited with spreading this false news, and he’s been hijacked. As reported in El Espectador, “This weekend an audio message that is attributed to the Colombian neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás began to spread like a true virus by WhatsApp.”

The message, full of medical inaccuracies, basically invites listeners to do a home test to measure their respiratory health and rule out that they are infected with the coronavirus before symptoms. Citing “Taiwan experts,” he invites to take a deep breath and hold it for 10 seconds.

Another tip in the audio message, this time citing “Japanese doctors who have treated these cases” is to make sure you have a moist mouth and throat, taking sips of water every 15 minutes. “Even if the virus was in your mouth when drinking water or another liquid it would sweep the virus taking it towards the esophagus and stomach where the acid would kill the virus”, is heard in the message.

The voice clearly does not match that of Llinás. However, and with the intention of clearing all doubts, El Espectador consulted directly with Dr. Llinás and his response was as expected: “that has nothing to do with me.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and other public health bodies have taken steps to tackle disinformation head-on, reminding people that the best way of tackling the virus is by regularly washing their hands. Read more ‘Mythbusters’ here.

Keep on sending me your questions and reports of quackery, and I’ll be here in Cuenca, helping to sort out the scams and misinformation from credible prevention advice, to be shared on this forum.
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Food, Nutrition, and Your Health columnist Susan Burke March moved to Cuenca after 35 years as a Registered and Licensed Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator in the United States. She currently serves as the Country Representative from Ecuador for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

Susan helps people attain better weight and health, and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions that can be improved with smart lifestyle modifications. Contact her at SusantheDietitian@gmail.com.

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