A health worker (L) inoculates a colleague with a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at a police hospital in Colombo on January 31, 2021. (AFP / Lakruwan Wanniarachchi)

Anti-vaxxer messages circulate online in Sri Lanka as island nation prepares for coronavirus vaccination drive

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As Sri Lanka prepared to kick off a mass coronavirus vaccination drive, messages circulated on Facebook urging people in the island nation to consume herbal remedies instead of taking the Covid-19 vaccine. The misleading claim was shared repeatedly in multiple posts. Medical experts told AFP that the purported remedies were not proven to prevent infection from Covid-19. They also emphasised that approved Covid-19 vaccines being offered in the country -- including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines -- had passed rigorous clinical trials and were safe.

The misleading messages were shared in multiple Facebook posts including here, here and here.

Screenshot of the Facebook post captured on February 08, 2021

“Don't take the murderous corona vaccine. All those who use the Covid-19 vaccine given by the government will die within a year due to their bodies weakening. This is all part of an attempt to sell Sri Lanka to foreigners,” one of the Sinhala-language messages reads.

It claims Covid-19 is “just like malaria” and can be cured by drinking a remedy of boiled coriander seeds infused with ginger.

“Immediately put a stop to eating meat, fish, dried fish or any kind of meat. Drink half a cup of warm water every half an hour. Chemical and poison free, jackfruit, breadfruit, manioc and greens are best for consumption. Refrain from breaking rest and engaging in tedious activities,” it reads.

The post goes on to recommend physical activity such as walking and gardening, and suggests people should avoid drinking, smoking and “sinning”.

Sri Lanka approved the emergency use of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University on January 22, 2021. The island nation of 21 million people -- which began vaccinating frontline health workers for Covid-19 in January -- is set to kick off a mass coronavirus vaccination drive for the general public in March, health authorities announced.

Sri Lanka’s health minister has previously publicly endorsed sorcery and magic potions to stop infection rates, which surged from 3,300 in early October to more than 70,000 in early February, according to an AFP tally.

Pavithra Wanniarachchi publicly took a concoction of honey and nutmeg, manufactured by a sorcerer who claimed it worked as a life-long inoculation against the virus. She tested positive for Covid-19 last month.

Vaccine safety

The Sri Lankan Health Promotion Bureau published an information sheet in a bid to reassure the public about the safety of Covid-19 vaccines.

Medical experts have warned that herbal treatments have so far not been proven to prevent or cure Covid-19, as of February 11, 2021.

Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases professor at the Australian National University, told AFP that vaccination is “the best way” to control the spread of Covid-19.

“For some infections, particularly viruses, there are no antibiotics available to treat them, so prevention through immunisation is the best way to control them and Covid-19 is no exception to this,” he said by email.

Fears around vaccine safety were unjustified, he said, because trials for Covid-19 vaccines, such as the ones created by Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca, have been carried out “very carefully”.

“Given that over 100 million people have been vaccinated worldwide with the vaccine rollout [so far], we have further evidence that the vaccines are safe”, he said.

Unproven herbal treatments

Covid-19 cannot be cured by consuming coriander seed and ginger infused water, medical experts say. 

“Boiled coriander water cannot cure either Malaria or Covid-19; the herbal properties may only help alleviate symptoms,” Dr. L. P.A. Karunathilake, a senior lecturer of indegenous medicine at Colombo University told AFP by phone on February 7, 2021. 

AFP has debunked similar claims about ginger remedies preventing Covid-19 here and here after they circulated online in Africa and Asia.

As of February 11, 2021, the WHO advises against home remedies to treat Covid-19. The organisation stated in October 2020 that drinking traditional herbal teas does not prevent Covid-19 infection and can even be harmful. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned there is “no specific antiviral treatment recommended” for Covid-19 infection.

Other purported health tips shared in the misleading posts, such as the claim that drinking warm water can cure Covid-19, have been refuted by health experts, as seen in this AFP Fact Check report. 

Malaria comparison

The claim that Covid-19 infection is similar to malaria is also false: the two diseases are caused by different microorganisms. Malaria is caused by plasmodium parasites spread to humans via mosquitoes that act as malaria vectors, according to the WHO.

By contrast, the Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus that causes respiratory illness

While antimalarial drugs are available to treat malaria, viral infections such as Covid-19 cannot be treated by the use of antibiotics, according to the WHO.