Federal health authorities have repeatedly warned COVID patients not to take the drug, which is an anti-parasite medication most commonly used in the United States on livestock and, in smaller doses, to treat head lice in people. But those warnings have done little to curb the drug’s popularity in parts of the United States.
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 1,440 cases of ivermectin poisoning this year through Sept. 20, which is more than triple the number during the same period in 2019 and 2020. A majority of this year’s reports came over the summer as people sought prescriptions after false claims about the drug’s effectiveness in COVID patients started to circulate on social media, podcasts and talk radio. Joe Rogan, the podcasting giant, and Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, have both promoted the drug.
States across the country are reporting a staggering number of calls about the drug to poison control centres. Health authorities in Mississippi reported last month that 70% of recent calls were about ivermectin. In Oregon, 25 people reported ivermectin poisoning between Aug. 1 and Sept. 14, Oregon Health & Science University reported. Five of those people were hospitalised, including two who were admitted to an intensive care unit.
New Mexico poison control centres have also seen a sharp increase in calls about the drug — 24 cases since November 2020, compared with two between January and November 2019, state health authorities said. Fourteen people were hospitalised this year after taking the drug, and two of them died, the state reported Wednesday.
The two who died — at 38 and 79 years old — had COVID-19 and had taken ivermectin instead of proven treatments like monoclonal antibodies, said Dr. David Scrase, the acting head of the state health department. He said the drug had contributed to both deaths, causing kidney failure in one of the patients.
Scrase said in an interview Saturday that using ivermectin to treat COVID was like taking an antacid for a heart attack. “It’s the wrong medicine for something really serious,” he said.
Dr. Susan Smolinske, director of the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center, said that about half of the reported cases of ivermectin poisoning this year involved people who took the drug to prevent COVID.
While certain versions of ivermectin are prescribed to treat head lice and other parasites in people, other formulations — which come in forms such as liquid and paste — are commonly used in the equine and livestock industries to combat worms and parasites.
In past years, Smolinske said, many of the incidents in New Mexico involved children mistakenly taking chewable tablets intended for dogs, but recently the poison centres had seen more instances of people taking concentrated forms of the drug intended for large animals.
“Most of our cases are of the horse or dewormer or pour-on product, so they’re highly concentrated compared to those tablets for dogs,” Smolinske said.
Smolinske said misuse of the drug can cause drowsiness, dizziness, tremors or even a coma. “It gets into the brain, and if you take a high enough dose, it has difficulty getting out of the brain,” she said.
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