Millions of people are desperate for medical treatment as COVID-19 continues to decimate much of Brazil. Vaccines remain scarce, and some of those who do get sick are turning to unproven treatments and cures. The country recently reported one of the deadliest periods on record since the pandemic began: 52,911 new cases and 2,378 deaths were reported in just 24 hours.
Dr. Albert Dickson, an ophthalmologist in northeast Brazil, is skyrocketing in popularity online. His social media channel says he offers “free medical consultations,” but there’s a catch: You have to subscribe to his YouTube channel first.
Subscribing for the Cure
Dr. Dickson claims that he is “above all, a doctor”. He’s been posting videos about the coronavirus and promoting his services online throughout the pandemic. His YouTube channel currently has more than 200,000 subscribers. He also has around 140,000 followers on two separate Instagram pages, with another 50,000 fans on Facebook.
The arrangement is simple; at least, that’s what Dr. Dickson would like you to believe.
In a video posted on Facebook in March, he said, “How are you going to be entitled to the consultation? You will subscribe to our channel…You will make a screenshot and send it to my WhatsApp. When you send it, you will start to have access.”
“The secret is to send the screenshot,” he adds.
Many people did exactly what Dr. Dickson told them to do. They took a picture of themselves subscribing to his channel and sent the pic to his WhatsApp. However, instead of getting a free consultation, most of them received generic instructions telling them to follow Dr. Dickson on Instagram.
The BBC recently reached out to Dr. Dickson via email about the arrangement, but he suggested subscribing to his YouTube and Instagram because he uploads “up-to-date research there and explains the disease in detail and our experience with it, in addition to answering questions live”.
During his consultations, Dr. Dickson prescribes a range of unproven treatments and cures, including ivermectin, which is used to treat scabies and lice. He says ivermectin can prevent COVID-19, but there’s no evidence to back this up.
He also swears by “early treatments” for the disease, but the concoction includes hydroxychloroquine, which hasn’t been shown to be effective against COVID-19, azithromycin, an antibiotic, the steroid prednisone, dutasteride, which treats prostate enlargement, spironolactone, a diuretic, bromhexine, which is found in cough syrup, apixaban, an anticoagulant, and vitamin D.
In his defense, Dr. Dickson says, “It is not mandatory to subscribe to the channel to get a consultation. We just suggest it. Many don’t comply and we continue to respond. The virtual consultation is free, I have never charged.”
Legislating for a Dangerous Cure
The doctor says he’s working 20-hour shifts to help his many clients. He claims to treat 500 patients a day while working “from Sunday to Sunday, from 07:00 to 03:00 every day.”
Dickson is also a politician. He serves as a Brazilian state representative from the minor Pros party, which supports President Jair Bolsonaro, who’s also been advocating for unproven treatments, including ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
During a legislative session last July, Dickson claimed he’d seen “31,000 patients from all over the world” and had followed up by email with more than 6,000 others. Just two have died, he said.
When asked how many patients he’s treated since the start of the pandemic, Dr. Dickson couldn’t give an answer.
During May of last year, he introduced two bills in the Congress, including one that would provide “free availability of drug kits with hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and azithromycin drugs”. The other would’ve asked health insurance companies to distribute these drugs.
Is He Breaking the Law?
Dr. Dickson says the Federal Council of Medicine in Brazil, the regulatory body for medical professionals, gives him full authority to prescribe medications and treatments for COVID-19.
YouTube has removed 12 of his videos for spreading misinformation about the virus, such as stating there is a verified cure for the disease.
Facebook says it “removes proven false claims about the disease,” but Dickson still has videos online saying ivermectin can prevent COVID-19.
Dr. André Bacchi, professor of pharmacology at the Federal University of Rondonópolis, said, “There is no proof that any of this works against COVID,” when he saw Dr. Dickson’s list of supposed treatments.
“The idea of ‘supplementing’, taking increased doses of various substances to give someone a ‘super-immunity’ is fallacious, and unfortunately, it is widespread in general society, as well as among specialists,” Dr. Bacchi added.
So far, 439,000 people have died of COVID-19-related causes in Brazil, which is the second-highest death toll in the world.