(Bloomberg) -- One in 20 people who had Covid used questionable treatments championed by groups that spread misinformation during the pandemic, a new study found.
In a survey conducted from December to January, of nearly 13,500 participants who had Covid at any point during the pandemic, 5.9% reported using ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug typically used in livestock, or hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, with some using both. Neither is approved to treat Covid but both have been promoted as remedies by vaccine skeptics and right-wing groups.
People who used the drugs reported having lower trust in the medical system, according to the study published Friday in the journal JAMA Health Forum.
“The notable thing for me was the extent to which it doesn’t break down on political lines,” said Roy Perlis, the lead author and director of the Center for Quantitative Health at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It breaks down more in terms of trust and how receptive people are to misinformation.”
Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to use the treatments, according to the study.
The Food and Drug Administration initially authorized hydroxychloroquine in 2020 as a Covid treatment and then-President Donald Trump called the drug a “game changer” in March of that year. But the agency later revoked the emergency use authorization after clinical trials showed the drug was ineffective against the virus. Despite this, patients still sought out the drug and physicians continued to prescribe it off-label.
Sales of ivermectin, as well as poisonings, soared during the height of the pandemic. Unable to get prescriptions for ivermectin as a Covid treatment, people turned to animal formulations of the drug, which is used to eliminate parasites in cattle.
While both medications are approved for other uses, there are risks of toxic effects when taken inappropriately. Ivermectin has the potential to cause severe confusion, seizures and hypotension, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine. Side effects of hydroxychloroquine include nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain and drowsiness, according to the World Health Organization.
The widespread misuse of ivermectin prompted US regulators to step in with a post that went viral in 2021: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously y’all. Stop it.” Since Robert Califf took over as commissioner, the FDA has set its sights on tackling social-media misinformation as a public health priority.
The FDA has since faced legal action over attempts to combat misinformation. Earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit ruled the agency’s tweets overstepped its authority. The case was brought forward by three doctors who claimed that the agency’s actions interfered with their medical practices and harmed their reputations.
Demand for the drugs still remains higher than before the pandemic. In August 2023, prescriptions of ivermectin were 75% above February 2020, while prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine were 33% higher, according to estimates from Symphony Health.
(Corrects name of publication where study was released)
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