Can “Thieves Oil” Prevent The Flu?
I recently ran across an oddity that made me lose my faith in humanity all over again. A ridiculously overpriced essential oil which relies on medieval theories of germ transmission as a selling point.
As you may know, the bubonic plague ravaged medieval Europe from the 13th to the 15th centuries. This disease was greatly feared, with a shockingly high mortality rate. Some estimates hold that half of Europe’s population was killed by the plague.
Bubonic plague is caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis. This bacteria is transmitted from rats to people by fleas. The flea bites an infected rat, picks up the disease in the rat’s blood, bites a person, and backwashes the bacteria into that person’s bloodstream.
Of course, at the time of the Black Plague, no one knew about bacteria or viruses. It wouldn’t be until the late 1800s that the “germ theory of disease” was developed. Before Koch and Lister, no one had any idea what caused diseases.
In medieval Europe, most people believed that diseases were caused by bad smells. The “malodorous vapors” themselves were thought to be to blame for the plague. People tried to prevent the plague by walking around with scented cloths and flowers held to their faces.
Now, Point #1 is: it obviously didn’t work. See also: half of Europe killed by the disease.
Point #2: they weren’t entirely wrong about this. The “bad smell” theory of disease is an excellent example of how a little bit of information, if misunderstood, can cause a huge amount of trouble.
Bad smells cannot cause disease. However, they may indicate other things that do. For example, the stink of a swamp cannot make you sick, but the mosquitoes that breed there surely can. The same goes for the bad smell of a corpse, and for the everyday use of chamber pots (most of which were simply dumped out on the street).
Unfortunately, by misunderstanding their observations, people made the wrong connection. Instead of avoiding the things that smelled bad (which would have greatly reduced the rate of disease transmission), people simply tried to avoid the smell itself by dousing themselves in perfume. Close, folks, but no cigar.
So it is that, according to legend, four thieves were caught in 15th century Europe. They had been stealing from corpses, but did not catch the plague themselves. The judges insisted that the thieves reveal their formula in exchange for their lives.
And now that formula is available to you! For a really high price! From a Utah-based multilevel marketing company! Amazing, right?
I was not able to find any external corroboration for the historical claims. As far as I can tell, Young Living invented the story out of whole cloth. I’m suspicious of the vagueness in their story (“the 15th century plague”). And they claim that the oil blend included eucalyptus – which grows only in Australia – a continent which hadn’t even been discovered in the 1400s.
Setting that aside, I could believe that dousing yourself in essential oils would repel fleas. As fleas are the carriers of bubonic plague, I could believe that dousing yourself in essential oils would keep you from getting the Black Death.
But it won’t prevent you getting the flu.
Unfortunately, once again we have a little bit of information getting misunderstood, to ill effect. This essential oil (a proprietary blend of clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus, and rosemary) no doubt smells nice.
But dabbing a bit of it on the back of your neck won’t keep you from catching the flu, any more than dabbing a bit of Chanel No. 5 would. And at a price point of about $45 for a wee little bottle, Chanel No. 5 is considerably less expensive!
People, you could afford more than two flu shots for that price. And flu shots, unlike this blend of essential oils, actually do prevent the flu.
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