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Fact-checking Tanzanian president John Magufuli on inhaling steam to treat Covid-19

In a live broadcast, Tanzanian president John Magufuli, zeroed in on steam inhalation, claiming that inhaling steam treats Covid-19.

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  • The Tanzanian president urged his health ministry to “emphasize” steam inhalation as a way of treating Covid-19. 

  • There is no evidence that inhaling steam can treat the virus, which replicates in cells, and experts warned the practice is dangerous.

  • While there are fats in the viral membrane of the virus, it is also misleading to call it “a fat” and that heat will “dissolve” it. Soap and water however will.

As the world battles to prise itself out of the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, president John Pombe Magufuli asked Tanzanians to look to traditional remedies.

In a live broadcast on 22 April 2020, Magufuli, speaking in Kiswahili, zeroed in on steam inhalation, which he asked the country’s health ministry to publicise as the science in favour of it was clear cut. 

“Na hili ningeomba Wizara ya Afya mlisisitize zaidi, kama swala la kujifukizia.  Na hilo scientifically ni very clear. Kwa sababu inatoka vapour ya maji katika temperature ambayo ni above 100°C. Na huyo corona kwa sababu ni futa, atapasukapasuka kwenye vapour ambayo iko above above 100°C. Kwa hiyo it is a scientific treatment. Wizara ya Afya waendelee kufafanua ni namna gani swala la kujifutizia linasaidia kupunguza corona,” Magufuli said.

[Translation: “Therefore, I ask the health ministry, to emphasize this, for example the issue of steam inhalation. Scientifically, that is very clear. That’s because steam comes from boiling water at temperatures above 100°C. And because the coronavirus is made up of fats, when exposed to such high temperatures above 100°C, it will just disintegrate. It is a scientific treatment.”] (Note: Read a longer transcript here).

Magufuli said that if the virus were in the nose or mouth, it would “melt” at such temperatures. He also suggested adding herbs, neem or Indian lilac, and onions to the boiling water. These approaches would be important for many Tanzanians to know in the fight against the virus, he said. 

The president has been in the headlines for his views on the Covid-19 pandemic. But is steam inhalation, an approach that has a lot of traction in East Africa, worth trying as a treatment for the disease?

What exactly did the president recommend?

To make sure nothing was lost in translation, Africa Check asked language scholars what exactly the president recommended in his speech.

Prof Kimani Njogu, a Kiswahili linguist, said that “kufukizia” translated to “steam inhalation”.

Dr Leonard Muaka, the president of Chaukidu, the global association for the promotion of Kiswahili, said that “kufukizia” is when you cover the head, usually with a blanket, over a pan of boiled or boiling water in order to inhale the steam.

“In this context we can say he was talking about ‘herbal steaming’,” said Muaka, who is also an associate professor in the department of world languages and culture at Howard University in the US.

Virus cannot be ‘reached by steam’, say experts 

A man shows a 3D printed COVID-19 cell at a printing lab in Greece in April 2020. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)

It is “very unlikely” that steam inhalation would treat the coronavirus, Alberto Escherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in the US, told Africa Check.

“The virus in infected individuals is within cells and will not be reached by steam,” he said.

Tsumoru Shintake, a professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, has studied the possibility of using “controlled ethanol vapour inhalation” to disinfect the human respiratory tract of the new coronavirus. The study said this could be useful for clinical workers, as they may “need to use prompt preventative measures at any time”.

Shintake, who said his background was in physics, directed us to a study that showed that when the virus was exposed to temperatures as high as 70°C, the time for its inactivation was “reduced to five minutes”. 

But physically attempting this, whether at 70°C or 100°C, is dangerous, Shintake said, and would lead to serious burns. Temperatures in the nasal cavity range between 32 and 34°C, he said. 

“Do do not try [to inhale steam]. You will damage the epithelium cells in your nose.”

Harvard’s Escherio agreed. “It is not safe and is likely to cause serious burns. And no matter how hot the steam is, it will not reach active viral particles that are replicating within cells,” he said.

Is the coronavirus a fat?

SARS-CoV-2, or “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”, is the technical name of the virus that causes Covid-19.
But is it made up of fat? This is “partly” accurate as “there are fats in the viral membrane” of the coronavirus, Alberto Escherio, an epidemiology and nutrition professor at the US Harvard School of Public Health told Africa Check.

But to describe the virus wholly as “a fat” is misleading, Tsumoru Shintake, a professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, said. This is because its structure is more complicated.
“[The] weak-point of SARS-CoV-2 is its envelope, made up of a lipid bilayer. Some constituents in the lipid bilayer are actually sort of fats, but not just fats,” Shintake said. (Note: Read more about this structure. UNESCO, the UN’s science agency, also explains here why water is not enough to dissolve the coronavirus and why soap is so essential .

No treatment yet for coronavirus

We have previously fact-checked similar inhalation claims and not found any evidence that it is a viable treatment for Covid-19. Other fact-checkers including Reuters, France24 and the BBC have also found no evidence to back up this resilient claim.

“Exposing yourself to the sun or to temperatures higher than 25°C DOES NOT prevent coronavirus disease,” the World Health Organization said in a coronavirus “myth-buster” article.

The WHO added that your normal body temperature remained around 36.5 to 37°C, regardless of the temperature of the steam you breathe, or the hot bath or shower you take. 

The health agency is clear  there is no cure for Covid-19 yet and has campaigned for handwashing with soap and cold or warm water due to how these interact with the coronavirus.

Conclusion: Steam inhalation cannot treat Covid-19 and is dangerous, experts say

In a national address, Tanzanian president John Magufuli advised citizens to inhale steam to beat the new coronavirus.

Experts told Africa Check that it is very unlikely this would work, and is dangerous. 

There is no effective treatment for Covid-19 yet.  

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