From the Executive Director - Killer in the bottle: methanol poisoning is the hidden epidemic

Time flies, and as the year is coming to an end, it’s common for people to get together with family and friends during the festive days of Christmas and New Year to have fun and grab a few drinks. For most people, drinking too much at a party would only result in getting hungover, but if you drink poor-quality alcohol laced with methanol, it may be the last drink you’ll ever have. 


In the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, home-brew alcohol is common, especially in the countryside and poorer areas. These homebrew alcoholic beverages are often consumed at marriage ceremonies, funerals or banquets, and as a result, methanol poisoning happens frequently. It is a huge public health issue; and the COVID-19 pandemic makes it even worse, as many countries are under lockdown, making it difficult for people to go out and get supplies. At the same time, rumours about how rubbing alcohol could prevent COVID-19 has led to the illegal sale of rubbing alcohol that contains methanol, intensifying the severity and complexity of the problem. Even developed countries are now facing this issue. However, many people still overlook this problem for a variety of reasons. 


The most common misunderstandings are about causes and symptoms. Most victims of methanol are poisoned by drinking alcohol laced with even cheaper methanol, which is a similar compound used as a solvent or for anti-freeze. The effects of metabolising methanol are similar to that of drunkenness, for example, vomiting and feeling dizzy. Many people would simply treat it as drunkenness, and let the patient drink some strong tea or sleep. However, if that “drunk person” happens to be poisoned by methanol, and does not receive medical care in time, they could face serious consequences, such as the loss of their vision or even death. 


To confront this often overlooked problem, MSF has been cooperating with Oslo University Hospital since 2012 to start a series of projects to prevent methanol poisoning. These are now underway in a number of different places, such as Indonesia, Libya, Kenya and Russia. Part of the campaign is to raise awareness about the issue so there is a wider understanding of the risks.


Saving lives is not something that only healthcare workers can do. Although we may live in a place where methanol poisoning is much less likely, this issue of Borderline may one day help you prevent someone from being poisoned or even dying from what has been an almost hidden hazard.


Jenny Tung
Executive Director, MSF Hong Kong