Efforts grow to stamp out use of parasite drug for COVID-19

Ivermectin, which is produced by a number of drugmakers in various countries, has been used throughout the world for decades to treat infections of parasites in humans and some large animals. Health experts and medical groups are pushing to stamp out the growing use of the drug to treat COVID-19, warning that it can cause harmful side effects and there’s little evidence it helps.

PHOENIX — Arizonans are poisoning themselves with medication meant for horses and cattle in their belief it will prevent or fight COVID-19.

Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer at Banner Health, said Wednesday that her organization’s poison center in just August managed 10 cases of people who became ill after taking ivermectin, “some that were so severe that they did require hospitalization.’’

It’s apparently become the latest claim of those looking for alternatives to vaccinations.

“Ivermectin is not usually something that our poison center gets many calls about,’’ Bessel said. “So this is very concerning to us to see this growing trend.’’

All this comes as the Department of Health Services reports another 2,432 new cases and 29 deaths. That brings the death total in Arizona to 19,333.

At the same time, hospitals statewide report they have just 129 beds in intensive-care units available, a figure not seen since last November.

Only a third of those are occupied by COVID patients, half of the rate during the last spike.

There’s a similar pattern of use for regular in-patient beds.

But Bessel said that many of the other non-COVID patients that are now filling those beds are often those who put off routine checkups and procedures during the height of the virus.

“Therefore, there has been delay of treatment for some of these patients,’’ she said. “There has been late diagnosis for some of these patients.’’

And Bessel said there has been “unseasonably high activity’’ for other respiratory viruses.

That level of hospital use also has resulted in what she called “day-to-day’’ decisions on whether there is staff and space so that certain kinds of surgery and procedures can be performed.

Bessel’s briefing comes as a judge is weighing the legality of a measure approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey which bans schools from requiring staff and students to wear masks. Challengers contend the provision was illegally adopted. And in the meantime some districts have imposed such mandates anyway.

The doctor has repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether she agrees with the new law.

But she said there clearly is evidence that at least some children are contracting the virus in the classroom. More to the point, Bessel said that information shows that masks work.

“We are very much aware that school outbreaks occurring in Maricopa County are occurring at a much higher frequency in those schools and school districts where masking mandates are not in place,’’ Bessel said.

She isn’t the only one declining to take a stance on the new law.

In a blog published Wednesday by the state health department, Dr. Richard Carmona, tapped by Ducey to be his health adviser, also declined to publicly differ with or debate the views of his new boss who opposes mask mandates, even as he acknowledged that there a public health recommendations for everyone to wear a mask while indoors while COVID spread is substantial.

“We can’t let strident arguments about mandating or not mandating masks and vaccines distract from the real problem: Not enough of us have been vaccinated,’’ Carmona wrote. He said the goal now is to “change the narrative’’ to convince people that getting inoculated is about more than their own health.

“Getting vaccinated means a thriving economy and more job opportunities, children learning safely at school and preparing themselves for successful futures, and enough hospital capacity so we can get medical care when we need it,’’ Carmona wrote.

As of Wednesday, nearly 4.1 million Arizonans had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. But barely half of all Arizonans are fully protected.

The decision by some to try ivermectin instead of any of the vaccines given full or emergency-use approval could be just another factor complicating efforts to get more Arizonans inoculated.

According to the FDA, certain animal formulations of the drug, including injectable, pour-on and paste, are approved to prevent parasites in animals.

There are some human uses, like pills for parasitic worms and topical applications for head lice and skin conditions like rosacea. But those, according to the agency, are at specific doses.

That’s not to say there may not be some use for the drug in dealing with the virus.

“Clinical trials are ongoing to assess ivermectin for COVID,’’ Bessel said. “But no clear findings have been released that confirm this drug is safe or as an effective form of treatment for COVID

And that, she said, is why doctors at Banner won’t prescribe it.

But there apparently is no bar to doctors recommending it for patients.

The FDA, in a consumer bulletin, tells people that if they do get a written prescription they should fill it through a “legitimate source such as a pharmacy,’’ and they should take it exactly as prescribed.

Part of the danger, according to the FDA, is taking medications meant for animals. Not only are those drugs designed for much larger creatures than humans but the animal versions “are very different from those approved for humans.’’

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