Demand for ivermectin has increased nationwide, despite health agencies’ warnings about the dangers of consuming it for non-FDA-approved purposes. No evidence has been found that the drug is effective in preventing or treating COVID-19.
Ivermectin is most commonly used for veterinary purposes, though it is sometimes prescribed to humans to treat parasites.
Over 88,000 ivermectin prescriptions were reported nationwide in the second week of August, an amount 24-times higher than the pre-pandemic figure, the Washington State Department of Health said in a news release.
Since last year, the Washington Poison Center has received a threefold increase in calls regarding ivermectin, said Dr. Scott Phillips, the medical director for the center. He attributed the rise in calls to misinformation. The center received 31 calls about ivermectin between Jan. 1 and Aug. 30, 2021, more than triple the number of calls received in all of 2020, which was nine.
Most calls were from people asking about ivermectin safety, though some calls were made from people who were recently hospitalized or were experiencing mild to moderate symptoms of poisoning, he said.
No severe cases resulting in death have been reported. However, it is unclear how many hospitalizations or deaths have occurred across the state in relation to ivermectin use because the Department of Health does not track that data, and local hospitals are not required to report those cases, said DOH spokesperson Frank Ameduri.
Though the drug is typically used for veterinary purposes, it is FDA approved to treat some parasitic worms, external parasites and skin conditions in humans.
Reports across the country have shown people using veterinary ivermectin, which is much higher in concentration. People desperate for the drug have taken to Reddit and elsewhere to purchase ivermectin doses without consulting medical professionals.
Humans should never consume veterinary ivermectin, even if they reduce the dosage, Washington Medical Commission spokesperson Stephanie Mason said. It has a different chemical compound that can be extremely dangerous, she said.
The Washington Medical Commission has received eight complaints so far, which are currently under investigation, Mason said. The commission relies on complaints to investigate.
But there’s a fine line when it comes to deciding whether physicians are meeting the standard of care, because even though ivermectin is not approved for COVID-19 treatment, it is a legal drug and FDA approved in some respects, she said.
Dr. Nathan Schlicher, president of the Washington State Medical Association said that just because a medication is used off-label, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the wrong thing. He noted that millions of treatments are off-label and still generally respected treatments. But claims that ivermectin is effective in treating or preventing COVID-19 are unfounded and misinformed, he said.
There are serious risks to taking unprescribed ivermectin, Schlicher said. The drug can lower someone’s blood pressure and increase their heart rate, which can be dangerous for someone fighting against COVID-19.
“Whether it’s hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin it gets into that range of causing harm,” Schlicher said.
Early in the pandemic, health officials had to quickly search for ways to repurpose available drugs for COVID-19 treatment and ivermectin came into question, said Dr. Mark Johnson, infectious disease specialist at Confluence Health in Wenatchee during a Monday DOH press briefing.
But ivermectin proved to have “very weak antiviral activity” and to date, there is no convincing evidence that it works to prevent COVID-19, he said.
“Clinical trials and observational studies to evaluate the use of ivermectin to prevent and treat COVID-19 in humans have yielded insufficient evidence for the NIH COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel to recommend its use,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in an alert on Aug. 26 warning against the use of ivermectin for COVID-19.
Despite the alerts and advice against ivermectin use for COVID-19 treatments from multiple health agencies, some Washington area doctors have not adhered to advice against prescribing the drug for off-label treatments.
Dr. Michael Turner, who works at Pacific Clinic in Kennewick, is among the Washington doctors providing consultations about ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19.
In a statement to The Seattle Times, the clinic’s general manager Shaelah Harmon said Turner, who is vaccinated and recommending the vaccine to patients, relayed to them that as an independent contractor and medical professional “he is within his legal rights as a practitioner to treat his patients to the best of his abilities.”
High demand for information on the drug also prompted Stanwood Integrative Medicine to post a statement on their website that they are no longer providing ivermectin consults “due to the overwhelming number of requests.”
The CDC and FDA have been clear that there is no reliable scientific evidence to support the use of ivermectin for COVID-19 treatment or prevention. People should be wary of unfounded research articles claiming ivermectin is successful for COVID-19 treatment and prevention, Schlicher said.
According to DOH, side effects can range from skin rashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, dizziness, seizures, confusion, drop in blood pressure, liver injury, and facial or limb swelling.
“It can make a tough situation a lot worse,” Schlicher said.
He expressed concern that aside from being potentially dangerous, ivermectin use is “delaying critically necessary and effective treatment.”
Effective treatments include monoclonal antibody treatments, which thousands of Americans have received, including former President Donald Trump, he said. It’s important to take on treatments that work like monoclonal antibodies early on to help their immune systems.
It’s vital for people to assess the “quality of the evidence” they’re looking at and not fall for research that confirms their desire that the drug works for COVID-19 prevention or treatment, Schlicher said.
There are many studies and journals found online that have no oversight and no content review. When looking at a study, people should make sure the science is rigorous and that it was published in a reputable journal, he added.
“Trust us when we say: Get vaccinated, come in and get regular care and that ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and whatever the next great snake oil salesman’s cure is not the right answer,” Schlicher said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story did not give data for the number of calls to Washington Poison Control.