Can marijuana cure measles? No evidence for Kenyan claim

Children as young as 2 in Kenya are having marijuana blown into their faces and ears as a supposed cure for measles. Does it work? Africa Check cleared the smoke.

Kenyan parents are flocking to have their children treated for measles by a group of women who make use of marijuana.

The women, based in Kisumu, reportedly blow marijuana smoke into the face and ears of children as young as 2 years old, according to the Sunday Standard.

They also dispense marijuana, locally known as bhang, as a liquid preparation. This they recommend be given as two spoonfuls daily for 3 days.

“The medicine works. The bhang will ensure that all the body agents that cause measles are killed,” one of the women told reporters as she showed them the method.

“The bhang particles go deep into the layers of the skin and remove the disease-causing agents,” she explained further.

Can marijuana cure measles? Africa Check investigated.

No specific treatment for measles

There is no specific treatment for measles, which is caused by a virus and is highly contagious, a March 2017 factsheet by the World Health Organisation shows. However, measles can be prevented with a safe and cost-effective vaccine.

Between 2000 and 2015, vaccination resulted in a 79% drop in measles deaths worldwide, the UN agency stated. Despite this, measles remains one of the leading causes of death in young children, especially those under 5. Most deaths are caused by complications from the disease, such as encephalitis (an infection that causes brain swelling) and severe diarrhoea.

In Kenya, marijuana is illegal. However, in recent months lawmakers have listened to petitions for it to be decriminalised for medicinal use.

Rigorous human trials yet to be done

While there is global interest in the use of marijuana to treat a host of conditions, more research is needed, according to the World Health Organisation.

Due to the difficulties of carrying out well-designed studies – such as strict legal requirements – it has not yet been rigorously tested in studies involving humans. Most of the early trials are concentrated in Europe and North America.

In June 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a systematic review of 79 eligible trials out of 505 deemed relevant. The review looked at evidence for the use of cannabinoids to treat 11 pre-specified illnesses. (Note: Cannabinoids are among the most active of the more than 500 known compounds in marijuana.)

The review found “moderate-quality” evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pain and spasticity (unusual muscle stiffness).

“As part of our review we screened all randomised trials of medical cannabinoids and I’m fairly sure that there were none targeting measles,” Dr Penny Whiting, one of the review authors and a senior research fellow at the University of Bristol, told Africa Check.

Whiting, who specialises in reviews, added that there may be uncontrolled or non-randomised studies out there that she was unaware of, however.

A report commissioned by British lawmakers found “good evidence” for the use of cannabis in managing chronic pain and spasticity. Covering studies published until April 2016, it also found “moderate” evidence for its use in managing sleep disorders and low appetite.

This review found varying results for 23 illnesses, but not for measles.

‘Total myth’ that marijuana can cure viral disease

It is a “total myth” that marijuana can cure measles, Kenya’s director of public health, Dr Kepha Ombacho, told Africa Check.

“Where marijuana is being used, it is for the purpose of managing chronic pain; the cannabinoids in marijuana are a strong painkiller because of their sedative effects on the body,” he said.

The deputy registrar of the Kenya Pharmacy and Poisons Board, Dr Fred Siyoi, told Africa Check the “only thing that will happen if you use marijuana on a child with measles is intoxicating the child. It is not proven that it has any therapeutic effect on measles.”

“This is why we advise people to go for standardised drugs that have already been tried and tested,” he said.

Conclusion: No medical evidence that marijuana cures measles

A group of women in the western Kenyan city of Kisumu reportedly use marijuana to treat measles, a highly contagious disease and one of the leading causes of death in children under 5.

While there have been recent petitions to decriminalise its use in Kenya, marijuana remains illegal, as in most countries.

There is currently more global interest in marijuana’s medical value than data to back it up, although two reviews showed evidence that it could relieve pain and reduce unusual muscle stiffness. However, mass human trials are yet to be done to determine whether marijuana’s medicinal use outweighs its known risks.

Experts said the effectiveness of marijuana as a home therapy to cure measles is unproven. While there is no specific treatment for the virus, a safe and effective vaccine exists.     

Edited by Lee Mwiti

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