Doctor is using hair lice medication to treat COVID-19 patients. Experts warn against it.

·6 min read

An internal medicine doctor in San Antonio, Texas, is gaining national attention after revealing that he uses the antiparasitic medication ivermectin — which is commonly used to treat head lice — on his COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Hoan Pho tells Yahoo Life that he has been “very aggressively” treating his patients who develop COVID-19 for months with a series of medications, including antibiotics, statins, aspirin, prednisone and high doses of vitamins C and D. But he added ivermectin to the regimen last month after reading data that suggests it may have an impact on COVID-19.

“I’m an aggressive treater of respiratory viral infections — that’s always been my practice style — and I find it helps prevent patients from getting worse, ending up in the hospital and ending up on ventilators,” he says.

But fellow doctors say this is not advisable. “Throwing the kitchen sink at patients with medications and supplements is dangerous,” Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. “Serious adverse reactions could come from this."

Yahoo Life medical contributor Dr. Dara Kass agrees. "We don’t use medications based upon lab data without trialing them in people for the purpose that they’re recommended. Although we’d love more medications to treat patients with COVID that are outside the hospital, ivermectin is not a medication that has been proven to treat these patients,” she says.

As for the steroids, Kass points out that they “have only been proven to help patients that require oxygen. That’s not the same as using it as an outpatient.” And, she adds, “all medications have side effects, and that needs to be considered, especially before giving five or so altogether. Any time you add medications together, you have to consider the interactions.”

The National Institutes of Health’s COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel recommends against the use of ivermectin for the treatment of COVID-19, except in a clinical trial, and current available clinical data on the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19 is limited.

Health care workers prepare specimen collection tubes at a COVID-19 drive-through testing location in Houston. (Reuters/Adrees Latif
Health care workers prepare specimen collection tubes at a COVID-19 drive-through testing location in Houston. (Reuters/Adrees Latif)

Yahoo Life has previously reported that vitamin D can be dangerous in high doses, according to a paper published in the British Medical Journal in May. The study authors warn that inundating the body with vitamin D can cause toxicity, and they emphasize there is no proof that doing so prevents the coronavirus.

Pho said he first heard of ivermectin as a potential COVID-19 treatment through research and even had several patients mention it to him. Now, he says, he sees “pretty drastic improvement” of symptoms in his COVID-19 patients. “They improve with less cough, shortness of breath, fever, chills, body aches and fatigue,” he says. Pho says he has prescribed his regimen to up to 50 patients and “none have ended up in the hospital.”

Pho admits that it’s “difficult to separate which medicine is doing what” and says that his patients have probably done well due to a combination of medications. But, Pho says, the ivermectin seems to be an important component. “I think there’s something there,” he says.

Pho says that he has “never had any bad side effects” from treating patients with ivermectin and it’s a “pretty safe” medication. He also says he has used it both to treat patients who are newly diagnosed with COVID-19 and as prophylaxis to try to prevent infection.

Pho has also posted about his protocol on Facebook.

There is some data to suggest ivermectin can help fight COVID-19, but it’s “too preliminary,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “We need randomized controlled clinical trials to make treatment decisions,” he says.

One in vitro study (meaning, it was conducted in a lab setting) found that ivermectin inhibited the replication of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers discovered that a single treatment of ivermectin was able to cause a 5,000-fold reduction in SARS-CoV-2 within 48 hours in a cell culture.

A meta-analysis of research conducted by the group Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance also suggests that ivermectin has qualities that make it helpful to both prevent and treat COVID-19.

There is currently a small clinical trial underway to study the effects of ivermectin on COVID-19 patients, but no results have been shared just yet.

But, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledges that there is some data that suggests ivermectin may work against COVID-19, “it is not approved for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.”

The organization says on its website that additional testing is needed to determine whether ivermectin is an appropriate medication to prevent or treat COVID-19.

“You should not take any medicine to treat or prevent COVID-19 unless it has been prescribed to you by your health care provider and acquired from a legitimate source,” the FDA says.

The FDA also points out that ivermectin can cause negative side effects, including:

  • skin rash

  • nausea

  • vomiting

  • diarrhea

  • stomach pain

  • facial or limb swelling

  • neurologic adverse events (dizziness, seizures, confusion)

  • sudden drop in blood pressure

  • severe skin rash potentially requiring hospitalization

  • liver injury (hepatitis)

Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that there is “no robust data to suggest ivermectin is something you would use to treat COVID-19 outside of a clinical trial.” Ivermectin “tends to be a fairly safe drug, but we don’t have incontrovertible evidence that it works against COVID-19,” Adalja says. However, he adds, doctors other than Pho are also using this medication to treat the virus.

“There are a lot of people advocating for the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19, but it’s becoming similar to hydroxychloroquine,” Adalja says. Watkins says there is “too much risk with unknown benefits” in using ivermectin to treat COVID-19.

Russo says that it’s “not unprecedented” for a medication to show it has some virus-fighting capability, but at this point he says the available data on ivermectin and COVID-19 “doesn’t really tell us anything.”

Russo says using ivermectin and other drugs outside their authorized use is “dangerous and irresponsible,” adding, “We should stick with what we know works.”

“This is observational, anecdotal medicine,” Russo says. “Using ivermectin to treat COVID-19 is not practicing evidence-based medicine. At the end of the day, people should not be doing this. We should be using treatments that have been appropriately studied and approved, and using ivermectin for COVID-19 is not.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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