Read Time: 4 mins
Last week, two patients referred to Dr. Michael Chatenay in Edmonton tested positive for COVID-19.
When his team broke the news to them, he said, they asked whether they could be prescribed ivermectin to help treat the virus.
The medication — used to treat parasitic infections — is being touted by some as a treatment or preventative measure for COVID-19.
“I told them the same thing I tell everybody when they’re asking about unproven therapies,” he said. “There may be some studies out there that show a benefit, but those studies are flawed. And that if you really look at this carefully, there really is no evidence that this provides benefit. And there’s actually quite a bit of evidence that it may, in fact, harm you, especially if you’re taking a veterinary supply that people are seeking [from] veterinary supply stores. So until there is evidence that this works, we can’t in good conscience prescribe it.”
Despite the lack of evidence, some people are buying ivermectin from pharmacies and if they can’t get it there, turning to veterinary preparations meant for horses or cattle, with unfortunate results. And experts point to misinformation as the culprit.
Health Canada issued a warning Tuesday about ivermectin, saying that it’s not authorized to prevent or treat COVID-19 and could lead to dangerous side effects.
BC’s Drug and Poison Information Centre told Global News that they have had nine cases related to people taking veterinary-grade ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19 in the last six months, when they had received zero calls about the drug over the last two years. None of these calls ended in a serious adverse outcome, the agency said.
“Ivermectin toxicity can lead to abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, dizziness, low blood pressure, seizures, coma, respiratory failure, and death,” the agency wrote in a statement. “Getting vaccinated with two doses of COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from COVID-19.”
Feed stores in Calgary have also told Global News that they’re getting calls about the drug.
“We were probably getting four to five phone calls a week,” said Lance Olson, manager at Lone Star Tack and Feed.
“This is not something people should be buying and putting in their orange juice or coffee. It’s not safe,” he said. His store has since pulled it off the shelf and now only sells to people with a valid Premises Identification Program (PID) number, which is given out to livestock operations.
There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance going on when someone eschews a well-studied pharmaceutical, like the COVID-19 vaccine in favour of an unproven drug, said Tim Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta.
“They’re against this vaccine, which one could argue is the most studied vaccine in human history,” he said. “They reject that. Meantime, they’re accepting an unproven drug that in fact, that the paper that was supporting it the most has recently been retracted.”
“I think it’s because of ideology and it’s because what this drug represents: If you are part of this community, you are to believe that this drug is effective and you believe the other narratives around it, that people are suppressing information and studies about this drug.”
Gordon Pennycook, a behavioural psychologist at the University of Regina, isn’t sure that people are really thinking through their decision to take ivermectin.
People don’t always have access to the basic science, and when they do, they don’t necessarily understand how to interpret a study, he said, “and so people listen to the people who they trust.”
When former U.S. president Donald Trump pushed hydroxychloroquine, another drug with unproven benefits for COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic, people started buying it, he said. Now, as ivermectin gets promoted online or by Fox News hosts, according to a report by NBC News, Pennycook thinks we’re seeing a similar phenomenon.
“It becomes a kind of counter-alternative. And then once some people see that this is now the recommended alternative, then they don’t want to take a vaccine, so they pick up on the alternative,” he said.
It comes down to who you see as a credible source, he says.
“You trust what you’re familiar with. You trust what people around you trust,” he said. “A lot of science communication and public health is about trying to convince people to trust the right people.”
Caulfield believes that in order to counteract the narrative around an unproven treatment, you need people within that community to speak out about what the science says, in hopes of introducing this information.
“The best-case scenario, you try to destabilize the misinformation before it takes on this ideological balance,” he said. “Unfortunately, that train has left the station.”
Because they’re scared and trying to deal with a pandemic, Chatenay believes that “people are picking and choosing what they want to believe.
“And so rather than taking a proven vaccine, they’re latching onto this miracle cure pill. And it’s a perfect storm of misinformation, lies and group mentality where people can find other people that feel the same way about it and sort of latch onto it and give each other moral support.”
There are some ongoing studies still examining ivermectin and COVID-19, he said.
“Until those studies are available, I would beg everybody not to poison themselves with this drug because as it stands right now, there is no proven benefit.”