LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
You may have heard about Ivermectin. The medicine is often used to deworm sheep and cows. But this summer, there's been a surge of people taking the medicine themselves. NPR's Pien Huang joins us now to talk about why U.S. health officials are warning against using the drug off-label to treat COVID-19. Hi there.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pien, why are we suddenly hearing so much about Ivermectin?
HUANG: Well, it's an anti-parasitic drug that's being pushed by the right wing and doctors outside the mainstream as a COVID treatment, and it's caused a major increase in calls to poison control centers, mainly because it's making some people very sick. So Ivermectin is a drug that's been around since the '80s, and it's a miracle drug for parasites, and it's used for treating farm animals and pets. It's also used in people to cure worms and head lice. Importantly, it is not proven as a COVID treatment. U.S. federal agencies, along with the World Health Organization and most reputable scientists, do not recommend it for preventing or treating COVID, but that hasn't stopped people in developing countries. It's really popular across Latin America and increasingly in the U.S. from self-medicating with Ivermectin.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did this happen? Is there any research about whether it can help with COVID-19?
HUANG: Well, everyone wants a drug that will cure COVID. And last year, there was some excitement around Ivermectin because it seemed to stop the coronavirus from growing within cells in a lab. But in that experiment, they used a huge dose to kill the coronavirus in a dish, and it's a dose that would probably kill a human, too. There have been other studies that looked at nonlethal doses. Here's Dr. Peter Lurie, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
PETER LURIE: So you have a large number of trials that have been done. Many of them are poorly done. They have the wrong comparative group, for example. They're too small. They're too short. They don't measure the right things. And what we currently know is that there's insufficient evidence to recommend this product at this time.
HUANG: And more studies are coming. There's one out of Duke University, another one out of Oxford. But the message right now from health regulators is do not try this at home outside of a clinical trial. It's not proven to be effective, and it's not safe.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And remind us what people are actually risking when they do take it.
HUANG: Well, we know that it's not usually a good idea to take a medicine that you don't need. And Laurel Bristow, a research coordinator at Emory University, says there are specific health problems that can come from taking this drug unsupervised.
LAUREL BRISTOW: There are blood thinners that you should not be on if you are going to take Ivermectin because they can boost each other. It can boost the toxicity of Ivermectin. It can make your blood extra thin on these blood thinners.
HUANG: It can also have bad interactions with some common supplements like St. John's Wort. And here in the U.S., since you can only get the human kind by prescription, a lot of people have been turning to the farm store and buying Ivermectin for animals off the shelf. This is really dangerous because it's more concentrated...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can only imagine.
HUANG: (Laughter) It's more concentrated, and it could contain ingredients that are not safe for humans. People have been overdosing. They've been showing up at the ER with severe diarrhea and hallucinations. The FDA actually tweeted - you are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all, stop it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, the FDA actually tweeted that?
HUANG: Yeah, they did. Michael Ganio from the American Society of Health System Pharmacists says it's also giving people a false sense of security.
MICHAEL GANIO: A patient who thinks they're receiving an effective treatment may not go seek out a treatment that's actually been proven effective.
HUANG: Health experts told me that it's no coincidence that Ivermectin is very popular in places where rates of masking and vaccination are low. These are places that were hit hard by the Delta surge, and people are desperate. And they're suspicious that the government and the pharmaceutical industry are steering them onto the path of more danger.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you very much.
HUANG: Thanks, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.