Bolivian Senate approves toxic disinfectant as Covid-19 treatment, against Health Ministry warnings

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In Bolivia, several lawmakers are fighting to recognize a toxic cleaning agent as Covid-19 therapy, even as health officials warn it could be fatal.

In the city of Cochabamba, Dionisio Flores displayed two small plastic dropper bottles in his right palm and a larger bottle in his other hand, which he said contained chlorine dioxide – a substance similar to water of bleach, described as “highly toxic”. and could be fatal – but which Flores bought to prevent or treat the coronavirus.

He is one of dozens of residents of the Andean city lining up outside stores to buy disinfectant for the treatment of coronaviruses, defying the advice of health authorities.

“Authorities say you need to see your doctor,” Flores told Reuters. “What a doctor, we never had a doctor! Poor people, we don’t have doctors. “

Chlorine dioxide is primarily used to disinfect the drinking water supply and has never been legitimately used or sold for use in or on the human body.The Bolivian health ministry said it was not an effective treatment for the coronavirus and issued strong warnings against its experimentation. On July 20, the ministry said on social media that the dangerous effects of chlorine dioxide can include acute liver failure, life-threatening hypotension caused by dehydration, severe vomiting and respiratory failure.

His warning was echoed by health authorities around the world. The United States Food and Drug Administration has warned against the use of chlorine dioxide for the coronavirus and says it “poses significant risks to the health of patients.” And the Pan American Health Organization says it does not recommend related products “in patients suspected or diagnosed with Covid-19, or in any other case, because there is no evidence of its effectiveness and the ingestion or inhalation of these products could cause serious adverse effects. ”

Still, those promoting its use include the mayor of Cochabamba, José María Leyes, who has tested positive for the virus, and lawmakers from the main opposition party.

“I consider it necessary to try other medicinal alternatives, such as chlorine dioxide,” Leyes said on July 10 on his official Twitter account. Despite the abundant warnings, he insists that chlorine dioxide is safe if taken with caution.

Bolivians line up in front of a pharmacy in Cochabamba.

The Bolivian Ministry of Health has threatened to prosecute those who promote the unscientific use of chlorine dioxide as a treatment for the coronavirus “with all the power of the law”. But so far, he has not taken any legal action against specific individuals or entities.

Approve an untested disinfectant

The promotion of chlorine dioxide has now gone beyond rhetoric in Bolivia: on July 14, the Bolivian Senate – controlled by the opposition Movement for Socialism party – passed a bill approving the “supply and use of chlorine dioxide solution for the prevention and treatment of coronavirus. ”

The bill would allow public and private laboratories to produce the chlorine dioxide solution “as long as there is a risk of contagion from the coronavirus,” and provincial and municipal governments would “ensure the supply of the dioxide solution. of chlorine in the public health system, ”the release said. The law would also regulate the trade and production of the substance, as some people bought chlorine dioxide on the black market, the statement said.

The opposition, which holds a majority in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, is now pushing the bill to vote in the House. We expect him to go there too.

“It would be an alternative to treatment,” said Sergio Choque, leader of the Chamber of Deputies and member of the Movement for Socialism. “Treatment, but medically prescribed. However, the bill says that prescriptions are not necessary, but the dosages must be listed on each bottle.

Ultimately, the bill must be signed by the interim president to become law, and Áñez will likely veto the law and comply with guidelines from the Ministry of Health.

But with elections slated for this year and coronavirus infections and deaths increasing rapidly across the country, pressure on Áñez and his cabinet to find new solutions to end the crisis is intensifying. The Movement for Socialism, loyal to ousted former leader Evo Morales, has sharply criticized the Áñez government’s handling of the pandemic.

The office of the acting president did not respond to a request for comment on the chlorine dioxide bill.

She and more than a dozen government officials have already tested positive for the coronavirus, although Áñez has since received medical clearance to return to work.

The Bolivian government issued an official decree on Monday declaring the country to be in a “state of public calamity” due to the economic impact of the Covid-19.

Overwhelmed health system

Bolivia, a country with one of the lowest GDPs in Latin America, is also one of the hardest hit by the pandemic with more than 72,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 2,700 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University (JHU).

Among the 20 countries most affected by Covid-19, Bolivia ranks seventh for per capita deaths, according to JHU.

Health workers bring a suspected coronavirus patient to a hospital in La Paz on July 23, 2020.

The country’s fragile health system has been overwhelmed by a surge in infections in recent weeks. Several hospitals in the two largest cities, La Paz and El Alto, have reached capacity. Mortuaries and cemeteries were also overwhelmed.

“Unfortunately, our Covid hospitals in the city are full,” La Paz mayor Luis Revilla said earlier in July, calling on other hospitals to step in. Revilla announced on Tuesday that he and his wife had tested positive for Covid-19 but were doing well and with almost no symptoms.

In Cochabamba, volunteers help collect the bodies of the victims and help those who cannot afford to bury their loved ones.

“We are all affected. I have family members in intensive care. We are trying to find a ventilator for my wife’s grandfather in order to save her life ”, Luis Fernando Ortiz, member of the“ Goodbye Brigades ”, teams of volunteers who coordinate collection of corpses with relatives and the police, and transportation to the nearest cemetery, told Reuters. “It’s a catastrophic situation,” he said.

Eric Ocana, another resident of Cochabamba, said treatments like unproven chlorine dioxide give him some hope and says he thinks it has made at least two people he knows feel better.

“They are doing great,” Ocana told Reuters, adding that they “are already out of this problem.”

Medical staff carry a coffin containing a coronavirus victim in Cochabamba.

Postponed elections

Beyond the proposed chlorine dioxide law, the coronavirus has left its mark on Bolivian politics, forcing a date change for its long-awaited presidential election.

The president of the Bolivian Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Salvador Romero, announced last week that the election would be postponed so that appropriate security measures against coronaviruses can be implemented. The vote will now take place on October 18, with a possible second round on November 29.

He had already been delayed from May.

The funeral carries a coffin during a funeral in La Paz.

Although Bolivia’s National Scientific Committee encouraged the postponement, former leader Morales, who is currently in Argentina but has remained politically active, criticized the announcement and accused the interim government of trying to “win more money. time “.

Morales, who resigned after the 2019 general election over allegations of voter fraud, claims he was forced to resign and vowed to continue fighting from abroad.

The Acting President of Bolivia, Jeanine Anez.

Áñez, a former senator, stepped into the role of interim president after the three people in front of her in the line of succession withdrew following massive protests after Morales resigned.

In an election increasingly marked by the coronavirus crisis, Áñez is running against several candidates, including two former presidents, Jorge Quiroga and Carlos Mesa, and the Movement for Socialism candidate, Luis Arce, backed by Morales.

“We are making all efforts and taking the necessary measures to be able to overcome the pandemic as quickly as possible,” Áñez tweeted on July 21. “If we work as a team, we will do it. “

CNNE’s Gloria Carrasco, Florencia Trucco and Abel Alvarado contributed to this report.

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