Calls spike to Alberta poison hotline about ivermectin after anti-parasitic drug touted as COVID-19 treatment

·3 min read
The form of Ivermectin used on humans is on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines because it is safe, inexpensive and effective — and has proven to be life-saving for treating some illnesses caused by parasites.  (Benoit Tessier/Reuters - image credit)
The form of Ivermectin used on humans is on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines because it is safe, inexpensive and effective — and has proven to be life-saving for treating some illnesses caused by parasites. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters - image credit)

Alberta's poison hotline has been getting a lot of calls from people who got sick after taking the drug ivermectin, which has been widely — and wrongly — touted as a treatment for COVID-19.

In an effort to remind people of the danger of misusing ivermectin, Dr. Mark Yarema, medical director of the AHS Poison and Drug Information Service (PADIS), posted Tuesday on Twitter several descriptions of such calls to the hotline.

"Children received COVID vax. Parent giving ivermectin afterwards to 'prevent negative reaction to the vaccine,'" said one call summary.

(Yarema clarified to CBC News that the children in this case were adults and that there have been no reports of children being given the drug.)

"Took ivermectin as COVID prophylaxis. Unknown amount ivermectin ingested. Currently has GI upset/vomiting, also drowsy," said another.

Ivermectin has been used in veterinary medicine for more than 30 years. It's predominantly used in livestock species like horses and cows to control intestinal parasites and some skin parasites.

The form of the drug used on humans is on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines because it is safe, inexpensive and effective — and has proven to be life-saving for treating some illnesses caused by parasites.

But parasites are not the same as viruses. COVID-19 is caused by a virus.

Yarema says calls related to ivermectin have spiked, especially over the past month. There have been 57 documented calls related to ivermectin since 2016, but 22 of those occurred in 2021 and 13 of them in the past month.

Not all of those calls involved people using the drug for COVID-19, he noted. Many involved instances of people being accidentally exposed to the drug while it was being used for veterinary reasons, for example.

Reid Southwick/CBC
Reid Southwick/CBC

"The calls that are more concerning are the ones where people are volunteering some information that they're using it for treatment for prophylaxis of COVID-19," he said.

"That was part of the reason for going public."

Yarema said he's heard of people getting prescriptions from elsewhere in the world and ordering it, or even having a local physician prescribe the drug for them. And there have been instances of people using a dose in an amount that's intended for a large animal, he added.

PADIS takes calls from Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. But the vast majority of the calls regarding ivermectin came from Alberta, Yarema said.

Neither Health Canada nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved ivermectin as prevention or cure for COVID-19, and no clinical studies have proven whether it can slow or stop the spread of novel coronavirus in humans.

One published study supporting the use of ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment had to be retracted after concerns were raised about data fabrication, plagiarism and ethical breaches.

In August, the FDA reissued warnings about ivermectin in response to a growing volume of misinformation on social media and reports of people poisoning and even killing themselves with it.

"You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it," said a tweet from the FDA.

Yarema was part of the AHS scientific advisory group that looked at ivermectin. The group issued a document emphasizing that the drug is not approved for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19.

"We've had at least nine months now of evidence that is very … like comparing apples and oranges, and we just haven't seen any good, conclusive data that suggests that it is the thing that is making people better from COVID," Yarema said.

"So right now, the answer is that we don't think that it works. But should new data come to light, that's what we do as scientists, we revisit it and we change our opinions if necessary."

People who become sick after misusing ivermectin are generally treated with fluids, anti-nauseants and pain medication, Yarema said.

"It would be very similar to treating a stomach flu or a gastroenteritis," he said.

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