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

Comments 17

Claim

Inhaling steam over 100°C will “disintegrate” the coronavirus, because it is “fat”.

Source: Tanzanian president John Magufuli (22 April 2020)

incorrect

Verdict

Explainer: There is no scientific evidence that very high temperatures or inhaling steam “kills” Covid-19.

  • 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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Comment on this report

Comments 17
  1. By Allen Rugambwa

    I Just loved the way you checked the facts! Very Professional I should admit.

    However, the method has been used in the region to treat respiratory diseases and some people believe it works. In these moments when there is no cure for Covid-19 people will try anything so as to remain safe!

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  2. By Said Salehe

    Well, this article took things out of context completely. Next time when you ask experts be sure to include people from the field in question and not translators only.

    “kujifukiza” is a traditional herbal treatment where plant leaves are boiled in water and people are covered around to inhale medicinal volatile substances. I summary, the aim of “Kujifukiza” is not steam inhalation but rather “inhalation of volatile medicinal oils”. These oils have variety of activities including anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and soothing. The science of what plant have what activity is in its infancy but that does not preclude their use.

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  3. By Lilian Mallya

    It is real what president is saying because I’m one among a victim who get heal of virus after steam inhalation and most of us Tanzanian have been healed after using that way! You can try to the infected person and you will realize that the president is right!

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  4. By Fatma

    But, steaming in the context of Tanzania as related to Corona virus does not imply treating the COVID-19. This is also misleading. It intends to reduce the viral load during incubation period within the gut. It is worth noting here that the technique typifies African communities in fighting against viral- flue related diseases like ‘Chikungunya’. It has been practiced in the region repeatedly particularly in Southern Tanzania where I come from. There people are practicing steaming nearly every year. However, there isn’t noticed problem relating to steaming.

    We have to know that COVID19 is not only a novice disease, but a fatal one. It is in this context that Tanzanian like other African communities are ‘struggling for their survival’ If they use steaming in non-fatal flue and colds how can they wait for the smooth death?

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  5. By Joshua Zacharia

    listen
    I think there is a misunderstanding in here, the steam inhalation procedure isn’t intended to treat the novel virus rather steam inhalation is responsible for opening the blocked air pathways so as to allow an easy flow of air through the lungs since the steam opens up the trachea by allowing lubrication of the mucus linings dries up by the covid19 virus and also the use of lemongrass and onions and ginger act as stimulants enabling protection from the viral infections

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  6. By Kunta kinte. The Black Blood

    Fact this is where we belong. No need to wait all the day medice sometime is poison. They need as to die and bring medicine let use our medicine if we are going to die we will die for our own rather than stay and look help from ur enemy who needed to be obeyed and give you medicine.

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  7. By Joseph

    Steaming should be carefully examined as a treatment because this traditional practice has helped and cured many diseases in African societies before the arrival of white medicines, the only problem we have in Tanzania and Africa at large is only lack clear and proper documentations of their practices, before being brainwashed by white medicine let’s focus on investigations and documentation of this practice including its side duration and side effects and possibly how to tackle them, as far as I remember many white medicines have deadly side effects but still we are using them to treat several diseases

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  8. By Wemmy

    Sometimes I wonder when so called.learned persons can’t be objective enough in their analysis. Let’s leave propaganda out of COVID-19.The same WHO that said Madagascar COVID Organic is not clinically tested for COVID cure, which Madagascar has embraces is the same organisation that reported that 158 cases were in that country and 101 has recovered with no single death. Who are we deceiving.

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  9. By Chris wuodala

    Ignorance is failing to understand but still excited to publish. We seen many before you who would look at every opportunity to soil Africa yet worship the ground the developed world is established even when clueless.
    Of course, the steam was not just water rather herbal concoction. You found it easy to write without varying thinking you would appeal your sponosor. Very wrong and mundane of you.
    I dare you to publish my comments

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  10. By Ephraim samweli

    Infact it is not steam inhalation only but mixture of medicinal herbs used to treat inluenza. It is mixed and boiled enough to torelate when covered by cloth and the herbs are inhaled like in sauna. It is a traditional practice for many african and many other nationals. Many people relìeve with covid 19 very quickly and they feel good. It might not be a scientific medicine by many get relieved by using those herbs infused in water and boiled. Thanks.

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  11. By Kitila Mkumbo

    The problem is that the west scientific world is used to ridicule any and every attempt from Africa. Even in this article all experts interviewed are from the same geographical area. None from Africa. Not coincidental! When our President called for a three day national prayer he was scathingly criticised. Today President Trump has also declared same national prayer day, it seems ok. We will no stop at anything in attempting any remedy that may help our people to reduce the pain from the covid 19 crisis, physically or psychologically until a solution is found.

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  12. By Paul Areba

    I fully agree with President Magufuli. As Africans, we need to get used to finding local solutions. Who said what Westerners impose on us is always right. We need to train ourselves to trust our leaders and their intelligence. It’s stupid of africans to interrogate our leaders with an aim of finding faults in them. We must show that we are proud of our leaders and support them. Let’s not be puppets of the west

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  13. By Lucy

    All I can say here is if Belinda and Gates foundation are your sponsors you will refute anything done by third world countries or Africa

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  14. By Miyuki

    Steam inhalation has been used as oriental medicine in Asia since ancient times when one has cold, coughs and flu. Covid 19 virus may bind in cells but the reason of death is not the virus bind with cells but usually due to lack of oxygen in the lungs coz the lungs due to excessive mucus and phlegm on the lungs that blocks the airways. Steam inhalation helps dislodge the phlegm from the lungs so breathing improves.

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