Enlarge / A box and container of ivermectin.
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A person in New Mexico is suspected of dying from an overdose of ivermectin, a state official announced Thursday. A second person in the state is also in critical condition following use of the drug, which is an antiparasitic medication mainly used in veterinary medicine to deworm animals, such as cattle and horses.
If the death is confirmed to have been caused by ivermectin, it is believed to be New Mexico’s first known fatal ivermectin overdose. The dewormer has recently seen a sharp rise in use—and poisonings from it—due to false claims that it can treat and prevent COVID-19.
There is no significant clinical data indicating that ivermectin can treat or prevent COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration—along with many other medical experts and the drug’s maker, Merck—continue to strongly oppose ivermectin’s use against COVID-19 and warn of serious side effects and life-threatening overdoses.
In a press briefing Thursday, New Mexico Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said he took a “calculated risk” in announcing the suspected overdose death “without firm documentation” that ivermectin was to blame. An investigation into the cause of death could take weeks, he said.
But word that ivermectin was the cause of the death was “reliable,” Dr. Scrase said. “I don’t want more people to die of an ivermectin overdose in the next four weeks while we’re gathering data.”
“I’d just like people to know that—if there are people out there taking it—it can kill them,” he added.
At low doses, ivermectin is approved for use in humans to treat some parasitic infections, including intestinal worms and external parasites such as head lice. But the drug comes with serious side effects, such as severe skin rashes that can require hospitalization, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, facial or limb swelling, neurologic adverse events (dizziness, seizures, confusion), sudden drops in blood pressure, and liver injury, according to the FDA.
Still, with the latest surge in COVID-19 cases and rampant misinformation about ivermectin circulating, prescriptions for human forms of the drug have increased 24-fold this summer, compared with pre-pandemic usage.
But not everyone with false beliefs about ivermectin have been able to get a prescription for human formulations. This has left many to turn to the far more dangerous veterinary formulations, which are intended for large animals such as horses, cows, pigs, and sheep and can easily lead to overdoses. An ivermectin overdose can cause neurological problems, seizures, coma, and death.
Farm and animal supply stores across the country have reported increased demand and empty shelves from the ivermectin misinformation rush. In a health alert on August 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a five-fold increase in calls to poison control centers regarding ivermectin use.