Doctors warn horse-dewormer can be lethal, so why are people taking it for COVID-19?

By: - September 2, 2021 3:08 am

Safety warning posted near the ivermectin at Blain’s Farm and Fleet in Standale, MI on Aug. 31, 2020 | Allison R. Donahue

Medication that is usually used to treat parasites has become the latest  COVID-19 conspiracy treatment, but doctors are trying to fight misinformation, stressing it isn’t proven to help treat the virus. In fact, physicians warn the drug can have detrimental side effects in humans if taken incorrectly. 

Medical professionals have studied whether or not ivermectin, which is usually used to treat head lice or parasitic worms in humans, horses and other livestock, could treat or prevent COVID-19, but current research isn’t showing that it works. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has pleaded that people do not take ivermectin for COVID-19 purposes. 

Using any treatment for COVID-19 that’s not approved or authorized by the FDA, unless part of a clinical trial, can cause serious harm,” the FDA said in March. “The FDA has received multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses.” 

But as Michigan experiences another surge of COVID-19 cases, there has been an uptick in poison control calls regarding ivermectin and patients looking to be prescribed the drug. As of Wednesday, Michigan has reported a total of 951,192 COVID-19 cases and 20,347 deaths. 

Dr. Rob Davidson, a West Michigan emergency room physician and Committee to Protect Health Care executive director, said on MSNBC Wednesday that he had a patient who refused the COVID vaccine, but asked for ivermectin instead.

“These are the kinds of lines that the former president [Donald Trump] threw out there and people latched onto it and just haven’t let go,” Davidson said.

The FDA has received multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses.

– The Food and Drug Administration

However, in Ohio, a judge last week ordered the West Chester Hospital, near Cincinnati, to provide a man with 30 mg of ivermectin daily for three weeks after his wife filed a lawsuit against the hospital. 

People who haven’t been able to find a doctor who will prescribe them ivermectin for COVID-19 have been buying the anti-parasitic medication intended for horses from farm supply stores.

The FDA strongly urges against this, noting “ivermectin preparations for animals are very different from those approved for humans.”

These stores are trying to curb customers from buying ivermectin to self medicate by posting warnings that the drug is not safe for human use. 

Potential side effects

Taking ivermectin for any reason other than its FDA-approved intended uses can cause mild to severe side effects, especially for those who are taking ivermectin intended for animals. 

Dr. Farhan Bhatti

Dr. Farhan Bhatti, a family physician in Lansing and Michigan state lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care, said mild side effects include headache, dizziness, vomiting and fatigue. More severe side effects include liver disease, blurred vision, changes in heart rate, swelling or low blood pressure.

Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Health in Royal Oak, said the side effects from ivermectin could actually worsen COVID-19 symptoms, especially the long lasting COVID-19 symptoms, like heart damage.

“People can die from taking ivermectin if they overdose on it,” Bhatti said. 

Overdosing is more common for people who are taking ivermectin intended for livestock because the formulations, additives and the dose are likely not the same as what is prescribed to humans, said Sims. 

Uptick in ivermectin-related poison control calls 

According to Varun Vohra, director of the Michigan Poison and Drug Information Center, there has been a small increase in ivermectin-related calls to the poison control hotline, though it’s significantly less than other states.

States with higher volumes of ivermectin-related poison control calls are Alabama, Mississippi and Texas

In 2021, poison control centers across the U.S. received three times the amount of calls for human exposures to ivermectin in January compared to the pre-pandemic baseline, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

That number spiked again in July when ivermectin calls increased to five times the amount compared to the baseline.

Vohra said in May Michigan saw a spike of about 10 calls, compared to about three calls a month prior to the pandemic. 

“It’s waned since then, but we’re going to continue to monitor because this is hitting the news cycle pretty hard, so that could stimulate an increase in use among people who start hearing about it,” Vohra said. 

Sims said he has seen an increase of patients who have asked to be prescribed ivermectin, but he is following FDA and CDC guidance. 

“I’ve heard people shouting we’re trying to keep it away … because it’s an old drug and relatively cheap,” Sims said. “If it can be proven to work, we’ll use it, but I’m not going to assume it’s going to work.”

Doctors who are recommending unproven treatments to patients could be at risk of losing their license for “unprofessional conduct.”

“If physicians are recommending harmful treatments to people, that’s a violation of their Hippocratic Oath. And if patients are directly being harmed by something that doctors are telling them to do, then doctors could have their license threatened in court,” Bhatti said.

Most doctors are sticking to what’s been scientifically proven to work: vaccinations, masking and social distancing, Sims said.

CDC Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, 2014 | Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Where did the ivermectin rumor begin?

A myriad of coronavirus-related conspiracy theories have made their way around the internet, many of which have been disproven by physicians, and are often hard to track where they originated. 

While ivermectin has been a hot topic in the news recently, it has actually been floated as a COVID-19 treatment since the early days of the pandemic in the U.S.

In April 2020, shortly after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Michigan’s first COVID-19 case in early March, the state put out a press release warning people not to take ivermectin for COVID-19. The release pointed to a pre-publication paper for the journal Antiviral Research as the source of the attention for this drug. 

People can die from taking ivermectin if they overdose on it.

– Dr. Farhan Bhatti

However, that study was only done in a petri dish and was not tested on animals or humans. 

Despite that, many right-wing media figures, such as Joe Rogan, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, promoted the drug without any scientific backing, reaching a large audience of people who are anti-mask and anti-vaccine. There also are a number of Facebook groups pushing ivermectin, as well as many posts in other social media.

Ivermectin is not the first “miracle drug” that has made headlines during the pandemic. Hydroxychloroquine, convalescent plasma and antiviral drugs lopinavir-ritonavir were also pushed to help treat COVID-19, but studies showed they were ineffective.

“Nobody has a problem with repurposing a drug to use to treat COVID,” Sims said. “There’s so many different products that have been tried that way, but most of them have not helped.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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