Eating three large onions will not cure Ebola (and dispelling other myths)

While the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has triggered panic among Americans on its spread, it is hardly surprising that the people actually dying from the disease have their own set of misplaced ideas of its spread and cure. And its not just confined to an “ignorant few”.

At least 1,552 people have died in this outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The latest WHO estimates,released on Thursday, show that over 40 percent of the cases took place just in the last three weeks, suggesting an accelaration in the outbreak. Most of these new cases have been concentrated within a few localities.

How Ebola originated

The most commonly reported myth about Ebola, according to a survey conducted in June, was in Sierra Leone, said Fabio Friscia, UN children’s fund (UNICEF) coordinator for the Ebola awareness campaign in Africa. According to the story doing the rounds, a husband opened a box that his wife had entrusted to him with explicit instructions to not peek inside. A snake sprung out of this box and announced it was going to kill everyone in the community – resulting in the present Ebola outbreak.

While this may be the most popular misconception about the disease’s spread, a second belief that it is a punishment for sexual promiscuity may be much more harmful. This rumor, possibly due to a comparison with HIV AIDS, has led to a strong stigma against Ebola survivors, said Friscia.

Ebola, what?

Even though 624 people have succumbed to Ebola in Liberia, some residents still believe that the virus is a government conspiracy. A local from one of the worst-hit areas in the country recently told journalists that the disease was just a rumor and that he had “never seen anybody die of Ebola.”

But this kind of blatant denial of the disease is not just restricted to ignorant locals. Ken Isaacs, the vice president of global aid group Samaritan’s Purse recently said in a US congressional hearing on the Ebola outbreak how even trained physicians and nurses in West Africa denied that the disease was real.

“We were told by the staff of one prominent doctor that he openly mocked the existence of the virus to his coworkers,” he said, describing how this doctor and his friend examined Ebola patients and died within a week. “These men were highly educated, credentialed and respected professionals, yet they did not believe in the existence or the seriousness of the disease.”

He warned that university students in Monrovia, Liberia today “continue to mock and deny the existence of Ebola.”

Here’s how you (don’t) treat it

One solution for avoiding the Ebola infection that is circulating is to eat three large onions, said Daniel Epstein, a WHO spokesperson. Another is to drink a mixture of coffee and cocoa powder “and something else” to prevent being infected, he said.

But what beats these word-of-mouth pieces of misinformation is the large-scale dissemination of a “preventive cure” that a Nigerian king suggested. Reports emerged that the king of Agala announced salt-water baths as a “magical vaccine” against Ebola. The prescription promptly went viral all over Nigeria after local radio and television broadcasted the statement, forcing the Nigerian government to issue a statement refuting the medical basis of such a “solution”.

A student volunteer from New Jersey, who was evacuated from Monrovia following the Ebola outbreak, described “bola buckets” with a solution of drinking water and chlorine that were being sold as locals believed it would cure Ebola.

Other supposed “cures” for the disease include condensed milk and holy water.


These myths aren’t just leading to pointless adoption of fake cures, but leading to extremely damaging situations, resulting even in death. Friscia said that rumors included beliefs that doctors were the ones actually killing Ebola patients once they were taken to the hospital, resulting in patients unwilling to be treated.

Last month, a former nurse is believed to have told people in a fish market in Kenema in Sierra Leone that Ebola was a pretense for “carrying out cannibalistic rituals”. This resulted in a protest at the main Ebola hospital, with thousands threatening to burn it down, according to reports.

After a Catholic priest also asked followers in Nigeria to perform religious rituals like drinking salt water, which is a major ingredient for Holy Water regularly used by Catholics for various spiritual and physical purposes, at least two people in the country died drinking excessive amounts of salt water.

While international aid organizations and local governments continue to try remedy these gross misconceptions surrounding Ebola, more lives are being lost every day to ignorance and old wives’ tales in West Africa.