Hakim Hussein Kheirandish is a famous preacher of a traditional Islamic medicine in Iran. On Aug. 6, he appeared on Tehran TV5 with advice on how to prevent a coronavirus infection.
Kheirandish removed a mask he was wearing during an interview, took a pill vial out of his pocket and said it contained salt – something he always carries. He claimed that salt protects against viruses and bacteria, is recommended by Islamic scholars, and that he takes it several times a day.
Kheirandish imitated pouring a handful and swallowing it.
“Eating salt frequently protects from corona infection better than wearing a mask,” Kheirandish said, asserting that it cleanses the nose, mouth, eyes and ears and the entire body.
The claim is false and misrepresents both the purpose of wearing masks and the medicinal value of salt.
Masks are recommended not to protect the wearer, but to stop the virus from being transmitted from individuals who are infected and who may or may not be showing symptoms.
Salt and salt solutions (saline) have been used for centuries for wounds disinfection, body hydration via intravenous injections, eye and respiratory tract cleansing. But while researchers are studying salt as a COVID-19 treatment, nothing is yet conclusive.
That didn’t stop Kheirandish’s purported remedy from spreading on social media. Iran has reported 376,894 cases of COVID-19 and 21,672 deaths, numbers that are considered undercounts. As of Tuesday (Sept. 1), the country ranked 12th overall in total reported cases.
TV5 posted Kheirandish’s video on its Instagram page, where it has received over 7,000 likes and has been widely shared.
On his own Instagram page, where Kheirandish has 268,000 followers, the video has been viewed nearly 175,000 times. Kheirandish also runs a website that is reportedly one of the most popular places in Iran for those interested in Iranian Islamic medicine.
Traditional medicine practitioners like Kheirandish have been called out before for offering questionable, nonscientific advice.
In a recent study, “Science and Pseudoscience in Traditional Iranian Medicine,” Kiarash Aramesh, a scholar at the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, examined two contemporary streams: the “quackery traditional Iranian medicine (QTIM) and the academic traditional Iranian medicine (ATIM).”
Aramesh describes the QTIM as encompassing “a wide range of practitioners with various backgrounds who work outside the academic arena and mostly address the public.”
These practitioners, he wrote, “have no solid bases or limited boundaries for their claims. Instead, they rely on making misleading references to the Holy Islamic Scriptures, inducing false hope, claiming miraculous results, appealing to the conspiracy theories, and taking advantage of the public resentment toward some groups of unprofessional healthcare providers.”
Hossein Kheirandish, is one of the “most-famous practitioners of QTIM,” according to Aramesh.
While the Iranian health ministry takes disciplinary measures against QTIM practitioners, among its advocates and proponents are high-ranking Iranian government officials, Aramesh wrote.
The Iranian fact-checking website FactNameh looked into several claims made by Kheirandish and gave his “salt advice” a false verdict based on World Health Organization guidance.
Studies and Myths
The Johns Hopkins University school of public health has listed “[d]rinking a lot of water and gargling with warm water and salt or vinegar eliminates the virus,” among the debunked COVID-19 treatments.
Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that while COVID-19 may cause a sore throat, gargling with warm salted water “may make it feel better, [but] has no direct effect on the virus.”
Still, some researchers are looking into salt.
In June, scientists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland launched a new trial to determine whether salt solution can help reduce symptoms of COVID-19.
The trial is a next step after a pilot study with results published in the Journal of Global Health in March. Titled, “Hypertonic saline nasal irrigation and gargling should be considered as a treatment option for COVID-19,” the pilot study involved 66 adult volunteers infected with two different strains of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
It showed that treatment with salt-water solution, known as saline, “reduced the duration of coronavirus infection by average of two-and-a-half days.” The severity of symptoms was also milder in a group that used the salt solution.
A similar study, conducted in Italy, concluded that “Saline Nasal Irrigations can reduce the viral load in the nasal cavities. Oral rinse with antimicrobial agents is efficacious in reducing the viral load in oral fluids.” Its authors recommended that public health authorities add saline to the measures to prevent and control the transmission of COVID-19.
Hyo-Jick Choi, a biomedical engineer and professor at the University of Alberta in Canada, has patented a salt-coated mask that purportedly traps the virus and kills it “within five minutes.”
None of these studies involves actually eating salt in its crystal or powder form, as suggested by Hakim Kheirandish.