Two deaths in New Mexico have been linked to people taking ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic infections in horses and other animals that has been misused by some who believe it to be an effective treatment for Covid-19 after falling for a wave of misinformation.
Officials from the state’s department of health announced the deaths during a press briefing on 22 September. The two people who died were among 14 who were hospitalised after taking the animal drug.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of ivermectin in humans in specific doses to treat intestinal parasites, but the drug isn’t meant to be used to treat viruses.
The acting head of the state health department, Dr David Scrase, said during the briefing that the two people who died were 38 and 79 years old and had both been infected with Covid-19 and took it upon themselves to treat the disease with ivermectin, with one of the people suffering kidney failure as a result.
“It’s the wrong medicine for something really serious,” Dr Scrase told The New York Times.
The FDA has warned against using the drug as prescriptions for it has increased, with some buying the livestock version of the drug but using it for themselves.
“The FDA has received multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalised after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses,” the agency states on its website.
“Animal drugs are often highly concentrated because they are used for large animals like horses and cows, which can weigh a lot more than we do – a ton or more. Such high doses can be highly toxic in humans.”
As of 20 September, The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported 1,440 cases of ivermectin poisoning in 2021 – more than three times the amount during the same periods in 2019 and 2020.
Most of the reports came in as more and more people wanted prescriptions for the drug as misinformation spread the false idea that ivermectin would be a good treatment for Covid-19.
Poison control centres across the US are reporting huge numbers of calls about the drug. Mississippi health officials said last month that 70 per cent of the calls in the state were about ivermectin. Oregon saw 25 people reporting that they had been poisoned by the drug between 1 August and 14 September, according to Oregon Health & Science University.
Out of the 25, five were taken to hospital, and two received ICU care.
Poison-control centres in New Mexico have received 24 calls about ivermectin since November 2020, compared to two calls between January and November 2019, according to health authorities in the state.
The director of the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center, Dr Susan Smolinske, said that around half of those who had been poisoned with ivermectin this year had taken the drug to treat Covid-19.
Dr Smolinske added that in previous years, most of the reports were of children accidentally taking chewable tablets of ivermectin intended for dogs, but that her centre had seen more cases of people taking highly concentrated forms of the drug intended for larger animals such as horses and cows.
“Most of our cases are of the horse or dewormer or pour-on product, so they’re highly concentrated compared to those tablets for dogs,” she told The New York Times.
She said the drug, if misused, can lead to drowsiness, dizziness, tremors or a coma.
“It gets into the brain, and if you take a high enough dose, it has difficulty getting out of the brain,” she added.