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Misinformation, spread largely through social media, has fuelled ivermectin’s popularity as an alternative to COVID-19 vaccines and approved medicines.HOUSTON COFIELD/The New York Times News Service

Calls to Alberta’s poison-control centre hotline about ivermectin – an anti-parasitic drug that has been pushed as a treatment for COVID-19 despite warnings from health officials and a lack of evidence on this use – spiked over the past month.

Callers reported nausea, vomiting and blurred vision, and some needed to go to an emergency room to manage the fallout from the drug, according to the poison-control centre’s medical director. One parent gave their children ivermectin after the kids were immunized against the coronavirus, believing it would tamp down side effects from the vaccine. Federal health officials in Canada and the United States have not approved ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment.

Misinformation, spread largely through social media, has fuelled ivermectin’s popularity as an alternative to COVID-19 vaccines and approved medicines. In Alberta this week, a speech delivered by a doctor who said he gave ivermectin to three COVID-19 patients in a hospital in Rimbey, Alta., spread online. The physician, Daniel Nagase, claimed two of the patients recovered within 24 hours of taking the drug and the third remained stable.

Dr. Nagase said Alberta Health Services (AHS) relieved him of his duties for providing patients with the drug, which he said a pharmacist procured from an agricultural supplier. AHS confirmed Dr. Nagase worked shifts in Rimbey and that he is now under investigation. The story fired up people who believe, without evidence, the medical community is withholding a drug that could prevent or treat COVID-19.

Alberta’s Poison and Drug Information Service (PADIS) handled 12 calls related to ivermectin between Sept. 2 and Oct. 3, according to AHS. Those calls make up more than half of the 23 ivermectin inquiries the centre has recorded since October, 2020, according to AHS. PADIS typically receives about 100 calls a day.

Mark Yarema, PADIS’s medical director, said most of the ivermectin calls are from people who took the drug hoping to stave off the coronavirus or treat COVID-19 symptoms.

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“It doesn’t work for COVID,” he said in an interview. “When somebody is taking this instead of more proven treatments, they could be putting themselves and others at risk.”

Ivermectin comes in a format that is suitable for humans, but some are using the concentrated version designed to deworm livestock. Agricultural stores have reported an uptick in people purchasing ivermectin meant for animals.

Dr. Yarema said some callers had to go to an emergency department to treat ivermectin’s side effects, while others ended up in hospital owing to COVID-19 symptoms. He turned to Twitter to describe a handful of the calls the poison centre has received.

“Family member told patient to take horse ivermectin over a few days for COVID prophylaxis. Took all at once in error. Has nausea, dizzy, floaters in eyes,” he wrote.

“Children received COVID [vaccine]. Parent giving ivermectin afterwards to ‘prevent negative reaction to the vaccine,’” Dr. Yarema wrote, describing another call.

In one case, a family doctor prescribed ivermectin for a patient, according to Dr. Yarema. Subsequently, the patient had low blood pressure, was dehydrated and diagnosed with COVID pneumonia, he said.

Dr. Nagase said in an interview on Wednesday that AHS took away his shifts and he is no longer able to sign up for more. He is a physician who travels to a number of rural communities, which are short of doctors.

When asked why he is confident ivermectin is safe and works for COVID-19 patients, Dr. Nagase said: “The science.”

Dr. Nagase, in his Oct. 1 speech in Vancouver, said he calculated ivermectin doses based on each patients’ weight.

Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration both warn against using ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19, noting it could cause health problems. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta and the Alberta College of Pharmacy last month reminded members the drug is not to be for COVID-19.

A preprint study released last year found ivermectin could dramatically reduce COVID-19 deaths, but the paper wasn’t peer reviewed, and it was later retracted over allegations of plagiarism and fraud. Other studies have found ivermectin is not effective against the virus.

AHS’s advisory group, earlier this year, said ivermectin should not be used to treat or prevent COVID-19. “The studies evaluating ivermectin treatment are not high enough quality to properly decide if ivermectin is useful or not,” the group said in a report dated Feb. 2.

“There is a lot of hype about ivermectin in social media, but it is still unclear if ivermectin actually prevents COVID-19 infection or is an effective treatment for COVID-19 because of the way studies have been done so far.”

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