By Dr S. Gunenthira Rao
I refer to the report “33 deaths owing to methanol poisoning in September alone" (Bernama News, Oct 1). The official reports from Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah reported that from Sept 9 to 30, thirty-three (60%) deaths out of these 55 methanol-poisoning cases had been recorded. The methanol-poisoning cases were reported in seven states, namely Selangor with 25 cases; Perak, 13; Pahang, five; Penang, six; Kuala Lumpur, four; as well as Johor and Negeri Sembilan, one each.
There could be false beliefs because people mistakenly believe that alcohol (methanol-containing beverages) might protect them against COVID-19. For example, a particular country like Iran has reported increasing methanol-poisoning cases due to misinformation linking alcohol intake to fight COVID-19.
Methanol is a chemical and the simplest non-drinking type of alcohol that is commonly used for household products, industrial and automotive purposes. However, sometimes it is illegally causing harmful health effects such as blindness, coma, and metabolic disturbances that can be life-threatening. Methanol poisoning occurs when methanol is added illicitly as alcoholic beverages and spirits.
Risk of methanol in alcoholic drinks
Methanol is found naturally in fruit juices, but it is very minimal and non-toxic. Methanol is also a product of fermentation and is found in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic fermented drinks. Low concentrations of methanol are not harmful. Problems arise when higher concentrations are formed during distillation processes. However, methanol is deliberately added to fortify informally-produced spirits and illicit alcoholic beverages.
Frequently such drinks are sold in unlabelled containers in markets and unlawful drinking venues. Certain people have a tendency to buy such beverages because it is cheaper compared to taxed alcohol. Furthermore, some such drinks are produced to appear legitimate through bottle design and labelling. Therefore, consumers can be misinformed into trusting they are buying genuine alcoholic drinks.
Who is at risk?
Unregulated alcoholic drinks are generally very cheap and are therefore attractive to people with low incomes, particularly alcohol-dependent and foreign labourers. Delay of early diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment of methanol poisoning may lead to high mortality and morbidity.
Myths about alcohol and COVID-19
There is a misinformation belief that drinking alcohol (methanol) will somehow cure or prevent being infected by COVID-19. Consuming alcohol will not kill the virus, but its consumption will likely increase health risks if a person becomes infected with the virus. Alcohol (at a concentration of at least 60% by volume) works as a disinfectant on your skin. However, it has no such function within your system when it is taken orally. There is also misinterpretation saying that drinking alcohol kills the virus in the inhaled air. We should be clear that the consumption of alcohol will not kill the virus in the inhaled air. It neither disinfects our mouth and throat nor gives us any form of protection against COVID-19.
So, what to do during the COVID-19 pandemic? If possible, avoid alcohol at all cost so that you do not undermine your immune system. But, if you drink, keep your drinking to a minimum level and avoid getting intoxicated. It is essential to understand that alcohol poses risks to your health and well-being and, therefore, should be avoided during this pandemic. Use the present situation scenario as a unique opportunity to quit drinking. Most bars, nightclubs, restaurants and other places where people gather to consume alcohol and increase the danger of transmission of the virus have been closed. So, it presents a great opportunity possible to reduce your drinking habit and become healthier. Additionally, we should remember that under no circumstances does consumption of alcohol protect you from COVID-19.
Dr S. Gunenthira Rao is a Public Health Specialist at the Penang State Health Department.