Throughout the 19th century salesmen traveled the US peddling solutions to all medical ills. As depicted in numerous Westerns and in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the “doctor” was aided by a shill in the crowd who would, at the appropriate moment, call out that this medicament, ointment or tincture had solved his woes. Once the unsuspecting public had purchased the con artists’ wares, both would quickly depart before the townspeople discovered the worthlessness of the claims.
One of the most common cure-alls was snake oil, and its less than sterling efficacy soon lent its name as a generic to all such fraudulent hoaxes. The epithet endures: A quick search for “snake oil” on the Internet reveals that it still refers almost exclusively to something worthless and fake.” (Cynthia Graber, “Snake Oil Salesmen Were on to Something,” Scientific American, Nov. 1, 2007)
Today, the phrase “snake oil” is being used to lampoon outrageous claims and crazy ideas, but back in the day, its efficacy was actually believed by many people, not least because they did not have a lot of options. These were the days before antibiotics were widely available, and even a simple headache would have been quite a challenge to deal with. Thus, people were quick to cling to anything and everything that seemed like a cure, because as they say, “desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Snake oils do resurface every now and again in the medical world, when some strange and as yet mysterious new disease surfaces, and people are gripped by the fear of the unknown. In parts of Africa, for example, some people still believe that the menstrual blood of virgins is a cure for the AIDS virus.
The latest public health crisis that had snakes heading for the hills once more is the current Covid-19 epidemic, an unprecedented period that has seen the emergence of snake oils of various descriptions, some politically rather than scientifically concocted.
One of the first ones to emerge was the use of bleach to “disinfect” the body from the virus, this one suggested by no less than the ex-president of the US Donald Trump himself. Its notoriety came due to its association with chlorine, chemically related to the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which the president also touted as a miracle cure. Of course, we now know that’s just all snake oil, but last year there were actually those who more than half-believed Trump, and quite willingly ingested the caustic chemical, or took its medicinal cousin as prophylaxis for the disease -- resulting in injuries and even deaths.
As recently as now, there are still many snake-oil cures masquerading as the real deal. Ivermectin, for example. The anti-parasite drug gained widespread notoriety for its supposed off-label application as a prophylactic and a cure for Covid-19, including some high-profile names in the medical community that we shall not mention here. And people are hoarding the drug, notwithstanding the fact that there are lots of animal-grade versions out there that are unfit for human consumption, but still being passed as safe.
Which brings us to a rather perplexing question. Since the vaccine is already widely available, why are some people still drawn to the snake-oil cures, rather than the scientifically proven preventive measure? The fact of the matter is, there are still many people eligible for vaccination, who would much rather prefer to down bottles of unproven Ivermectin, than get themselves a shot in the arm of the much more scientifically studied vaccine.
Why is this the case? Well, why are snake oils of various kinds still being peddled about as legitimate cures for a whole host of ailments. Like meal-replacement shakes, for example, that are touted to make you lose tons of weight, but conveniently omitting the fact that as soon as you stop using the product, you are back to your old weight (and more) in record time.
People will be people, and some will always want to tread a different path. But the sooner we can get them on the vaccine road, instead of the snake oil diversions, the quicker we can get ourselves doing the things we used to do, back in times more normal.
Belated greetings to my sister Ann Batuhan Rentuza, who celebrated her birthday last week.