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Wisconsin Health Professionals Push Back Against Advice On Drug Not Approved For COVID-19 Prevention, Treatment

Doctors Say US Sen. Johnson Is 'Endangering Our Patients'

A hand in a blue glove reaches down to grab a syringe that is resting on a table.
A nurse reaches for a syringe of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, May 4, 2021, at St. Francis High School in St. Francis, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Doctors in Wisconsin are concerned about people taking a medicine used to treat worms in livestock, wrongly believing it can protect them against COVID-19.

Calls to poison control centers across the U.S. have increased from people taking ivermectin. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an emergency alert in which the agency said cases of overdose and misuse are rising.

In Wisconsin, there have been 17 cases of ivermectin poisoning this year, according to Dr. David Gummin, medical director of Wisconsin Poison Center.

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Ivermectin is not authorized or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for prevention or treatment of COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health says there are currently insufficient data to recommend ivermectin for treatment of COVID-19.

“This medication, like most medications, can make you sick. You should only take medications to treat COVID-19 infection when these are provided to you by a trained, knowledgeable physician,” said Gummin.

UW Health has seen suspected cases of ivermectin poisoning which can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, said Chief Quality Officer Dr. Jeff Pothof.

UW Health and Gunderson Health in La Crosse are among providers scrutinizing prescriptions of the drug to ensure it’s being used for approved uses, such as head lice and rosacea. Because its use is limited to relatively few conditions, a rapid rise in prescriptions can indicate a red flag, Pothof said.

The use of ivermectin to prevent and treat COVID-19 is being touted in some right-wing circles. In Mississippi, public health officials pleaded with people to stop ingesting the livestock drug to treat COVID-19.

Some doctors in Wisconsin are pointing to Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson for helping to spread misinformation about the pandemic. He has been a vocal advocate for hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin to treat COVID-19 despite warnings from the medical community that the drugs are ineffective and could have adverse side effects.

“We have a United States Senator, one of the highest elected officials in our country, in the face of a pandemic, going against recommendations by health care professionals,” said Dr. Bob Freedland, an ophthalmologist practicing in La Crosse who is with the liberal Committee to Protect Health Care.

In June, YouTube suspended Johnson for violating the company’s policy on medical misinformation. Johnson has pushed back on critics, saying on Twitter he is merely advocating for early treatment of COVID-19; but doctors say the treatments that have been proven to work are limited.

“Yet again, Johnson is endangering our patients and compelling us as health professionals to push back,” said Freedland.

In its health alert, the CDC said nationwide, more than 88,000 prescriptions were written for the drug ivermectin in the week ending Aug. 13, an increase of 2,400 percent over the weekly average prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those prescriptions don’t reflect what is sold in farm supply stores to treat parasites in animals and they do not include pills people order off the internet.

“There are doctors on the internet who, for a fee, will give you just about anything,” said Freedland.