LOUISVILLE Ky. — In a normal year, the Kentucky Poison Control Center might receive one call from someone who has taken ivermectin, a drug commonly used to treat parasites in livestock. But amid increasing misinformation about the drug’s ability to both treat and prevent COVID-19, that number has increased to six this year.
Kentucky Poison Control Center Director Ashley Webb said at low levels of toxicity people may experience rash, headache, nausea or vomiting after ingesting ivermectin.
“In more severe cases, we've seen seizures and coma,” she said. “You can have potential respiratory and cardiovascular collapse, low blood pressure, or potentially stop breathing.”
Several other states have also reported an increase in ivermectin poisoning. Last week, Mississippi’s health department said 70% of recent calls to its poison control center were a result of people ingesting “livestock or animal formulations of ivermectin purchased at livestock supply centers.”
Webb said the majority of the calls in Kentucky have also been from those who’ve taken the animal formulation of the drug.
“Animal and human biology are not the same,” she said. “Drugs that are studied for animals and developed for animals have not been tested or studied in humans and may act differently.”
On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned people not to take the drug to treat COVID-19. “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it,” the FDA said in a tweet.
The FDA has approved ivermectin tablets to treat conditions caused by parasitic worms in humans. But Webb said it’s not common.
She also emphasized that there is no evidence the drug is effective against COVID-19. Nor is there any reason to believe it would be.
“It’s used to treat parasites and parasites and viruses are not the same thing,” she said. “Ivermectin has no mechanism by which it would actually treat a virus.”
The belief that ivermectin is an effective tool against COVID-19 can be traced back to March of 2020, when a study showed that the drug killed the virus in a laboratory setting. But Dr. Chuck Anderson, Chief Medical Officer for Baptist Health, said “you can do that with a lot of things in a petri dish.” He said translating those results to the human body can be very difficult.
But that study led many to give the drug a shot. By last summer, tens of thousands of people in Latin America were taking ivermectin as both a treatment and a preventive. Last fall, a preprint study appeared to provide evidence of the drug’s efficacy in humans. But in July, the website that published the study withdrew it “due to an expression of concern communicated directly to our staff.”
Meanwhile, media platforms popular with conservatives, including Fox News, have promoted ivermectin as they disparage COVID-19 vaccines.
“We've got safe and effective vaccines that have been given to millions of people with good efficacy and a great safety profile,” Webb said. “I would urge people to use that as a good preventive mechanism versus trying something that's unproven and potentially unsafe.”
Anderson has seen just the opposite with some COVID-19 patients, who have refused vaccines, but ask doctors for ivermectin once they've become ill. “That’s causing a lot of stress,” he said.