The plea from Mississippi’s top doctor to a state grappling with the nation’s second-lowest vaccination rate seemed simple: Do not take ivermectin, a drug intended for treating worms in livestock, to prevent or treat the coronavirus.
Despite no scientific evidence that ivermectin is effective at preventing or treating covid-19, State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs was left baffled this week after one person was hospitalized for ingesting the horse dewormer medication to treat the virus - a “kind of crazy” act he likened to getting chemotherapy at a feed store.
“Please don’t do that,” he said.
Cases of people consuming ivermectin to treat covid-19 in Mississippi are drawing alarm, with the state’s health department issuing an alert Friday warning not take the drug, saying the state’s poison control center has “received an increasing number of calls from individuals with potential ivermectin exposure taken to treat or prevent covid-19 infection.” Mississippi State Epidemiologist Paul Byers wrote in a letter to the MS Health Alert Network that “at least 70 percent of the recent calls” have been related to the ingestion of ivermectin “purchased at livestock supply centers.”
“Do NOT take drugs made for animals in any form,” the health department wrote on Facebook.
The spike in ivermectin use in Mississippi comes at a time when the state is suffering through what Dobbs described as “the worst part of the pandemic.” Mississippi reported more than 5,000 new covid cases Friday, bringing its seven-day average for new infections to 3,586, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. More than 1,600 people are hospitalized for the virus and about 450 beds in intensive care units are filled as of Saturday.
Dobbs, who has repeatedly stressed that vaccination remains “our best way out of this pandemic,” issued an order Friday threatening infected Mississippi residents with fines or possible jail time if they do not isolate at home.
The increase in cases has also affected children in the state, as more than 20,000 students, accounting for 4.5% of the public school population, have been quarantined for exposure to coronavirus. Byers emphasized that Mississippi minors ages 5 to 17 are seeing the fastest growing number of coronavirus cases, with the highly transmissible delta variant hospitalizing young people at a high rate.
“We’re in as bad of a situation as we can be,” Byers said during a live-streamed meeting with the Mississippi State Medical Association.
Commonly used to treat parasites in animals, ivermectin has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat several forms of parasitic worms found in people. But the FDA and health officials have warned for months against using the drug to treat covid, saying its use can “cause serious harm.”
“There are approved uses for ivermectin in both people and animals,” Byers wrote in the letter. “Patients should be advised to not take any medications intended to treat animals and should be instructed to only take ivermectin as prescribed by their physician.”
The total number of cases related to ivermectin was not specified in the Friday letter. Byers noted that 85% of those who called the Mississippi Poison Control Center said they experienced mild symptoms. Some of the symptoms for ivermectin use among people include rash, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, neurological disorders, and potentially severe hepatitis requiring hospitalization.
“Animal drugs are highly concentrated for large animals and can be highly toxic in humans,” Byers said.
Dobbs and Byers did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday.
More than 36% of the state is fully vaccinated, above only Alabama for the lowest vaccination rate in the nation. Dobbs acknowledged this week that the severity of the state’s health crisis was due to a “tsunami” in cases among the unvaccinated population that’s overwhelmed hospitals. Nearly 90% of covid hospitalizations and 86% of deaths in the state have been among unvaccinated people, Dobbs said.
The discussion surrounding ivermectin has largely stemmed from anecdotal testimonies online of those who largely oppose vaccination and masking. On social media, some have falsely claimed ivermectin to be a cure and that they were “mostly symptom-free” after taking the drug. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, previously told The Washington Post that ivermectin was “the new hydroxychloroquine,” referring to the malaria drug pushed by former president Donald Trump that proved ineffective against covid.
The drug, which had been used in some countries in Latin America as a covid treatment, took off at the start of the year; the FDA said at least three people were hospitalized in February after taking the veterinary formulation. In places like Nevada, customers flocked to feed stores in search of the deworming drug to help fight against covid. Makenna LaFond, who works at Sierra Feed and Saddlery in Reno, recalled to The Post earlier this year how she’d have to tell people seeking ivermectin to treat or prevent covid, “No, that’s not for you. That’s for a 1,100-pound horse.”
“Then, they would buy, like, six tubes of it,” she said.
The FDA, National Institutes of Health and World Health Organization have warned people against using the drug for covid treatment and a March study published in the medical journal JAMA found that ivermectin does not speed recovery in people with mild cases of the disease. Pharmaceutical giant Merck, an ivermectin manufacturer, has also said it did not support the drug’s safety and efficacy for covid treatment.
But the drug found a national audience in conservative circles. Between March and this month, Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham promoted the use of ivermectin as an alternative covid treatment to millions of viewers on their prime-time shows. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was suspended from YouTube in June for posting a video touting ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as treatments.
Recently, reports of ivermectin use among unvaccinated people have sprung up outside of Mississippi. The family of Phil Valentine, a conservative radio host in Tennessee who was unvaccinated and using ivermectin, is now “elated” to hear his listeners are getting vaccinated after he was infected with the virus. In Chalmette, La., 62-year-old Darleen Asevedo died of complications from covid on Aug. 14. Her daughter, Kortney, told WAFB that her mother was unvaccinated and taking ivermectin.
“Every single person has given me different information of what she should have done, what she should have took,” the daughter said through tears. “Everybody’s wrong.”
Doctors in Southern states are still urging patients to get vaccinated and not take on an unproven form of covid treatment that health officials have said does not work. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge, told the TV station that while she has used ivermectin to help treat parasitic worms in people, the science shows Americans looking for a coronavirus treatment that’s not the vaccine need to come to terms with the ineffectiveness of the deworming drug.
“We have to let it go,” O’Neal said. “We’ve tried lots of things during this pandemic, some have worked, some have not. Ivermectin doesn’t work.”
The Washington Post’s Laurie McGinley contributed to this report.