In the early days of the pandemic, health officials sounded the alarm after reports arose nationwide of people experimenting with products including hydroxychloroquine and industrial bleach to treat coronavirus, with both having been promoted — sans evidence — by former president Donald Trump as potential cures for the deadly disease.
Now, nearly a year and a half and three authorized vaccines later, another unfounded treatment has surfaced. Across the country, local media outlets have published alarming stories on individuals taking ivermectin — a drug most often used to treat or prevent parasites in animals — with the intent of ridding themselves of coronavirus or staving off the illness altogether.
The use of the drug received widespread attention last week when a plea from Mississippi’s top doctor to not ingest ivermectin went viral. That followed a report from the Mississippi Free Press that “at least” one person had been hospitalized after taking the drug.
The incident — and others like it — in a state with the second-lowest vaccination rate in the nation, has left Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs utterly perplexed: “I think some people are trying to use it as a preventative, which I think is really kind of crazy. So please don’t do that.”
The Mississippi State Department of Health issued a health alert warning Aug. 20 specifically about an increase in ivermectin poisoning incidents, noting that the Mississippi Poison Control Center had received an escalating number of calls “from individuals with potential ivermectin exposure taken to treat or prevent COVID-19 infection.”
At least 70 percent of the recent calls were “related to ingestion of livestock or animal formulations of ivermectin purchased at livestock supply centers,” according to the alert.
In at least a dozen other states — among them Kentucky, Missouri, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Oregon, and Louisiana — phone calls to poison control centers have surged this month surrounding the intentional misuse of the livestock dewormer, according to media reports. Shelves at farm and tractor supply stores where the medication typically sits have also been cleared out.
In Alabama, calls to the state’s only poison control hotline over ivermectin poisoning are on track to triple this year. And in Texas, the state’s poison center network said it has received 150 calls about exposure to ivermectin this year, with 55 of those in the past month. Last year, the center reportedly only got 48 calls.
Amid a rise in cases and hospitalizations from the virus, local and federal health officials are disturbed by the growing trend, likely accelerated by rampant disinformation across social media platforms and the peddling of the drug by a slew of conservative pundits on widely viewed programs.
“If you get COVID-19, we actually do have treatments that work, from steroids to monoclonal antibodies and other treatments. But ivermectin is not one of them,” US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “What this highlights is just the profound cost of health misinformation right now.”
The Food and Drug Administration released a warning about ivermectin on Saturday. The federal agency said it had received “multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses.”
Some studies last year reportedly spurred the use of the drug to treat coronavirus. Conservative lawmakers such as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and right-wing media personalities — including Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and Sean Hannity — also have promoted the use of ivermectin as an alternative treatment, while casting doubt on the vaccine.
The FDA, which has previously warned against using ivermectin and has not approved or authorized the medication to treat or prevent coronavirus, said the use of the drug can have serious side effects.
“Even the levels of ivermectin for approved uses can interact with other medications, like blood-thinners,” the FDA said. “You can also overdose on ivermectin, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hypotension (low blood pressure), allergic reactions (itching and hives), dizziness, ataxia (problems with balance), seizures, coma and even death.”
The agency tweeted out an alert even more upfront in tone: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”