ATLANTA — The misuse of an anti-parasite drug to treat or prevent COVID has spiked in recent weeks, leading to increased calls to poison centers.
The CDC has issued a health advisory warning doctors and the public about the use of ivermectin to treat the virus. The drug, used for roundworm infections and the mostly tropical disease known as river blindness, is not approved for COVID.
The Georgia Poison Center has fielded 23 calls so far this month related to ivermectin, as compared with ‘‘less than a handful’’ in a typical year, said Gaylord Lopez, director of the center. Many of the calls have come from people with symptoms linked to ingesting the drug.
“They’re calling and telling me they’re vomiting, they’re [feeling] faint. Having double vision,’’ Lopez said Friday.
More than 88,000 prescriptions nationally were written for ivermectin in the week ending August 13, a 24-fold increase over the weekly average prior to the pandemic, the CDC said.
Besides that, some individuals have obtained the product from farm supply stores, because it is used to de-worm pets and livestock.
One patient showed a picture that looked like an antifreeze container.
“It had a sheep on it,’’ Lopez said.
The FDA recently warned against using ivermectin to treat COVID. The agency tweeted last week: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.”
Calls to poison control centers increased fivefold in July compared to the number before the pandemic, the CDC said.
The poisoning increase has occurred as the number of daily COVID infections reported in Georgia has jumped to levels not seen since January, a result of the highly contagious delta variant.
On Friday, the state’s Department of Public Health reported more than 11,000 new cases and 59 deaths from the disease. Hospitalizations for COVID in the state are approaching the pandemic record of 5,700.
Hospitals are asking their communities and the state for help in handling the patient load.
Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory infectious disease expert, said an individual who contracts the Delta variant can infect up to eight others, making it much more dangerous than the original strain.
“The virus we’re facing today is very different from the original virus,” he said. “This is so highly transmissible, it’s not the COVID we knew a year ago.”
The Arkansas Medical Board is conducting an investigation after a physician said he prescribed ivermectin “thousands” of times for treatment of COVID-19, including to inmates in an Arkansas jail.
For months, conservative media have talked about how it could be used to treat COVID-19, CNN reported.
Lopez said pharmacists have called and asked whether it’s appropriate to fill a prescription. And Georgians interested in taking ivermectin have called as well.
Many people “are trolling the Internet’’ to find information about ivermectin, Lopez said. “It’s dangerous when you start playing Dr. Google.’’
A potential user may not take into account their underlying medical conditions and possible interactions with other drugs, he added.
Ira Katz, a pharmacist who owns Little Five Points Pharmacy in Atlanta, said Friday that he won’t fill a prescription for it unless it’s addressing the uses approved by the FDA.
“It’s a dangerous thing,’’ he said. “People need to avoid it.’’
He compared the ivermectin use to that of the anti-malarial drug hydroxycholoroquine for hospitalized COVID patients early in the pandemic. But the FDA canceled its emergency use authorization when clinical studies showed that hydroxychloroquine is unlikely to be effective for treatment of COVID in these patients and some serious side effects, such as irregular heartbeat, were reported.
“People are reaching for straws,’’ Katz said.
The answer to preventing COVID, he emphasized, is to get vaccinated.
Lopez said individuals using ivermectin should immediately stop doing so and monitor their symptoms. If vomiting persists, he said, people should seek medical care.
No one in Georgia is reported to have been hospitalized for misuse of the drug, but there have been ER visits, Lopez said.
If individuals have questions or concerns about ivermectin use, or if they’re having symptoms, they should call the Georgia Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222, he said.