Kentucky Poison Control sees sharp jump in calls about people taking ivermectin for COVID

Sarah Ladd
Louisville Courier Journal

Eight months into 2021, the Kentucky Poison Control Center has seen a big increase in intentional misuse of ivermectin, a treatment mostly used for parasites in animals, as some ignore health guidance and use it to treat COVID-19. 

In 2020, there was one call for ivermectin misuse, but as of Tuesday, there have been 13 misuse calls this year, center director Ashley Webb said, adding that "most of those have been because people are trying to treat COVID." 

Of the calls, 75% were from people who bought ivermectin from a feed store or farm supply store and treated themselves with the animal product. (The other 25% were people who had a prescription, she said). 

 "These products aren't formulated for humans," Webb said. "Ivermectin has not actually been shown to treat COVID effectively." 

The ivermectin product sold in farm supply stores is "formulated for livestock like horses and cows, which weigh considerably more than humans," Webb said. "And also, ivermectin acts differently in animals than in humans and so the dose is not going to be equivalent. It would be almost impossible to measure out an appropriate dose for a human … out of that concentration." 

Dr. Ashley Webb, Director and Clinical Toxicologist for the Kentucky Poison Control Center.

People should get the vaccines instead, Webb said. The Pfizer vaccine is fully approved for use in people 12 and older by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are approved for emergency use. 

"There are safe and highly effective vaccines, and that's the route that people should go to prevent COVID-19," Webb said. 

A Tractor Supply spokesperson said it's against policy to disclose specific sales numbers when asked if Louisville-area stores have seen an increase in demand for ivermectin. 

"The anti-parasite drug Ivermectin has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in treating or preventing COVID-19 in humans," Tractor Supply said in a statement. "The product sold in our stores is only suitable for animals and is clearly labeled as such. We have signs to remind our guests that these products are for animal use only. If customers have questions about COVID-19, we suggest consulting a licensed physician and finding more information at FDA website.

This advisory sign was sent to all Tractor Supply stores in the U.S. 
Provided, Courtesy Tractor Supply.

Dr. Hugh Shoff, associate chief medical officer for University of Louisville Health, echoed Webb's warnings during a Monday news conference.

“Ivermectin does not treat COVID,” Shoff said. “It does not prevent COVID. It does not treat symptoms of COVID.”

Used primarily to treat parasites in animals, the drug has been used to treat malaria, a parasitic infection, in humans, he said. But it is not safe for humans in doses typically administered to large animals and can cause serious side effects.

“The idea that this could be used to treat COVID is just not there,” Shoff said. “Right now there’s no evidence that it can help people. What it can do is harm people.”

Dr. Hugh Shoff, an emergency medicine doctor, instructs health care workers at a University of Louisville Health drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in March 2020.

The Poison Control calls started in late April, Webb said, but they sped up in August, which accounts for about half of the 13. 

Webb couldn't share patient specifics, but said the center has had to tell some people to either call 911 or go in for an evaluation at a hospital. Kentucky's hospital system is overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and has reached record numbers of patients regularly for a week. 

People who incorrectly use ivermectin may experience nausea, vomiting and hallucinations, according to Webb, and may experience seizures, comas or respiratory and cardiovascular collapse. 

More:Fact check: 590% jump in poison control calls about ivermectin seen in Texas

Despite warnings not to use ivermectin to treat COVID-19, an Ohio judge this week ordered a hospital to treat a patient with ivermectin following a request from the patient's wife. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in an advisory last week that ivermectin purchases increased during the pandemic — right along with calls to poison control centers about overdoses and negative side effects.  

"In 2021, poison control centers across the U.S. received a three-fold increase in the number of calls for human exposures to ivermectin in January 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic baseline," the advisory stated. "In July 2021, ivermectin calls have continued to sharply increase, to a five-fold increase from baseline. These reports are also associated with increased frequency of adverse effects and emergency department/hospital visits." 

More:Butler County judge orders West Chester Hospital to treat COVID-19 patient with ivermectin, despite CDC warnings

More:After worst week for COVID-19 cases in Kentucky, state sets more hospitalization records

Gov. Andy Beshear scolded people taking ivermectin for COVID-19 during a Monday evening press briefing. 

"Every doctor in America is saying 'please get vaccinated' and somebody on Facebook says to take a deworming medication, and people run out to do it. That's scary," he said. "And, please God, don't do that. If you've ever taken care of horses, they are much, much, much bigger than us, and their bodies work very differently than us.  

"Remember, if you're thinking about taking horse medication — they don't have arms. I mean, they're entirely different than you and I are." 

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear gives a grim assessment of the COVID-19 surge in Kentucky at the state Capitol. Aug. 27, 2021

In May, University of Kentucky researchers announced they would look into how effective ivermectin is in treatment of COVID-19, along with azithromycin and camostat. That study is still in progress, UK confirmed Tuesday, though it may conclude within the next few weeks. 

Meanwhile, Norton Healthcare has seen success when treating patients with Regeneron monoclonal antibodies, which are synthesized antibodies similar to those a person develops after getting a vaccine and are federally approved for emergency use in COVID-19 patients 12 and older who are symptomatic and high risk. 

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Dr. Joseph Flynn, chief administrative officer of Norton Medical Group

Dr. Joseph Flynn, chief administrative officer of Norton Medical Group and physician-in-chief at Norton Cancer Institute, said Thursday that the system had treated about 3,000 people with the antibodies so far, averaging about 70 per day. Of the 3,000 treated, Flynn said 10% have needed to be admitted to the hospital. 

High risk patients include those who are unvaccinated, pregnant, overweight, diabetic or have kidney disease, cancer, asthma and more. COVID-19 patients should talk to their doctor about their qualifications for Regeneron, Flynn said.

Flynn said those treated with Regeneron see 83-90% reduction in negative outcomes of COVID-19, but it's not a substitute for getting vaccinated. People who have been treated with Regeneron should wait 90 days before being vaccinated, though. 

"People should be clamoring to get their vaccine," he said. "Please, if you're not vaccinated, please get vaccinated. That's the best thing you can do." 

Debby Yetter and Joe Sonka contributed to this report. Reach health reporter Sarah Ladd at sladd@courier-journal.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ladd_sarah.