The words of Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay on 2020 World press Freedom Day are worth repeating “to fight infodemic of rumours and disinformation which is worsening the pandemic and putting lives at risk”. 

On that same day, a senior ANC leader spewed a reckless statement about a traditional medicine as Covid-19 cure. This theme was continued by two disturbing columns on nicotine in respected newspapers by senior journalists.

I can excuse the ANC leader because politicians by their nature are populists whose ignorance overrules science. The Madagascar miracle cure of Artemisia and ravensara promoted by President Andry Rajoelina reminds me of former Gambia dictator Yahya Jammeh who told the world in 2007 of his Aids cure. It is reckless to say people must drink “umhlonyane”  or artemisia Afra/annual as the ANC leader was suggesting.

It is more dangerous if senior journalists are telling people nicotine protects you against Covid-19. Journalists should not use their positions to be tobacco lobbyists. The health profession needs the media to spread the correct message about Covid-19, and not personal agendas.

I concede my simple letter can never compete with 490,000 signatories calling for the lifting of restrictions on tobacco sales and the mighty Sars that is losing R35m/day due to tobacco lockdown. Neither do I want to be a moralist who is policing smokers. I cannot believe in 2020, we are back rehashing science vs smoking debate. The Pulitzer winning classic work of Richard Kluger Ashes to Ashes — America’s Hundred Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris exposed and debunked the lies.  

Let me repeat Kluger’s foreword: “Did mankind simply become putty in the hands of the master manipulators who ran the cigarette business?” Why would anyone suggest nicotine can protect you against respiratory infection?  Unfortunately, we have to revisit this old topic, that is, smoking is dangerous.

The controversial nicotine study by French researchers in Pitie Salpetriere, Paris, was widely reported by the New York Times and now the Economist magazine. This was disputed by the US Food and Drug Administration,  Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and Centre for Tobacco Control Research and Education, which said that “people who smoke cigarettes may be at increased risk of infection with the virus ... may have worse outcomes from Covid-19”.

 French health minister Olivier Veran said: “Tobacco kills ... more than 70,000 people die each year in France from smoking-related illnesses.” Wait for proper research by professor Jean-Pierre Changeux of the Pasteur Institute in France, who is doing a clinical trial on 1,500 subjects, testing the nicotine hypothesis.

Oher misinformation is that Covid-19 patients die mostly of large-vessel stroke rather than pneumonia and hypoxemic respiratory failure. The stroke story gained traction after five case studies of younger patients in New York City with large-vessel ischemic stroke. Incidence of stroke is only 5% in Covid-19 as a Wuhan, China retrospective study of Covid-19 published in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows. Some have coagulopathy and multiple infarcts. The majority of Covid-19 patients present with upper and lower respiratory infections. The clinical characteristics of Covid-19 are well-documented from multiple studies.  

Let's not confuse ourselves. Artemisia Afra/Annua is not a cure for Covid-19. Nicotine does not protect you from Covid-19.  

Dr Lucas Ntyiantyane
Via e-mail

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