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The number of Americans suffering serious adverse health effects after consuming ivermectin to treat Covid-19 has more than doubled since the anti-parasitic drug was falsely touted as a cure for the virus.
The US Food and Drug Administration has received 49 reports of poisoning and other serious reactions linked to human consumption of ivermectin to treat Covid so far this year. The equivalent figure for the whole of 2020 was 23 cases, according to data released to the Financial Times.
It follows a surge in ivermectin use following its promotion by some conservative commentators as a potential treatment for Covid-19, even though it has not been approved by regulators to treat the virus. Outpatient prescriptions of the drug have increased 24-fold on pre-pandemic levels, reaching 88,000 in the week ending August 13, according to data from IQVIA, a research firm.
Authorities in New Mexico said this week they are investigating whether the deaths of two people with Covid-19 were linked to overdoses of ivermectin.
And in a sign that adverse reaction reporting to the FDA may underestimate the scale of the problem, there have been 26 overdoses on the drug in New Mexico since the start of December, compared to just two in the previous 11 months.
“Almost all of our cases are using it to prevent or treat Covid and 13 of them this year have ended up in a healthcare facility,” said Susan Smolinske, director of the New Mexico Drug and Information Centre.
“Coma, seizure hallucinations, dizziness, nervous disorders like tingling. Those are what we’re seeing from these very high doses,” she said.
Ivermectin can be used by humans in small doses to treat parasitic worms or head lice but it is much more commonly used by vets to treat parasites in horses.
The FDA has received 110 reports of serious adverse reactions related to all types of uses of ivermectin so far this year, compared to 99 cases throughout the whole of 2020. But the surge in cases related to treatment or prevention of Covid-19 has alarmed the agency, which has warned the drug is dangerous if ingested in large doses.
“You are not a horse. You are not a cow,” the FDA tweeted last month. “Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”
Preliminary findings in some studies by scientists had suggested ivermectin may reduce mortality in some Covid-19 patients. But the FDA has said current data does not support its use to prevent or treat the virus and has not approved it.
In February Merck, which manufactures ivermectin, said there is no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against Covid-19 from pre-clinical studies.
Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the increase in calls to poison centres was worrying.
“Some people are getting official prescriptions from physicians and using the standard human doses that are used for parasitic infections. Others are obtaining the veterinary version of the drug and are using doses that are not calibrated to humans,” he said.
Dr Adalja said the drug had become politicised during the pandemic and there was no clinical evidence to supports its use against Covid-19.
Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have all mentioned ivermectin as a possible treatment for Covid-19. It follows the promotion of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential Covid-19 treatment last year by conservative commentators and former President Trump.
Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.