Malaysian health authorities warn against use of controversial anti-parasite drug

Incidents of ivermectin poisoning have been found in Malaysia. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

KUALA LUMPUR - "You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it."

This was a tweet by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month, amid reports that some people were using the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin - normally used to treat animals - as a cure for the coronavirus.

Like the US, other countries such as Malaysia, India and Indonesia have also reported the use of the drug against Covid-19.

In Malaysia, where incidents of ivermectin poisoning have been found, health authorities and experts have warned against human consumption of the drug.

"Anecdotally, there is definitely an increase in the availability of ivermectin within the community," respiratory physician Helmy Haja Mydin told The Straits Times.

"In times of desperation, people would naturally reach out for apparently miraculous treatments. The common misconception is that ivermectin is safe for use irrespective of the dose taken, and depending on who you talk to, it can either prevent or cure Covid-19," said Dr Helmy, who is also chief executive of the Social and Economic Research Initiative think-tank.

The World Health Organisation has warned that current evidence on the use of ivermectin is inconclusive and that it should be used only within clinical trials.

However, a non-governmental group of six medical and consumer-related organisations, called the Malaysian Alliance for Effective Covid Control, claims that the drug can be used to prevent and treat the virus, despite the lack of scientific data.

But Dr Helmy said: "Unfortunately, it is not without potential side effects, and there is no strong clinical evidence at this point in time to suggest that it plays a role in the management of Covid-19. The situation is not helped by lobby groups that tend to consist of individuals who are not experts in the treatment of Covid-19."

At least two known cases of ivermectin poisoning have been recorded in Malaysia - a 35-year-old who took one tablet and experienced shortness of breath for five days, and a senior citizen who was found unconscious after taking 15 tablets at one go, said the Health Ministry on its Facebook page on Aug 14.

The Malaysian Pharmacists Society and the Malaysian Medical Association have expressed concern over the widespread illegal sale of the drug and warned that anyone caught selling it to treat or prevent Covid-19 can be fined up to RM50,000 (S$16,900).

One person The Straits Times spoke to bought the drug because of the spread of the Delta variant and the high number of deaths in the Klang Valley.

"My parents are old and were really worried about getting Covid-19. I had yet to get a date for my vaccination at the time, and was getting really anxious, so I got some in case I needed it," said the buyer, who declined to be named.

While a clinical trial is ongoing in Malaysia to assess the drug's efficacy in preventing severe Covid-19, some lawmakers have pushed for its use in hospitals.

Opposition MP Sivarasa Rasiah told Parliament on July 27 that lives were being lost because Covid-19 patients were not given the drug.

"There are some doctors who want the off-label use (of ivermectin) to treat people to stop them from dying. Let individual doctors make their own assessment and judgment, with the consent of the patient," he was quoted as saying by The Star daily.

But one ivermectin user became sicker after taking it to treat Covid-19.

"My brother tested positive for Covid-19 and had a cough and slight fever. He decided to take ivermectin while isolating at home. But later, we discovered he had deteriorated to Category 4 and needed oxygen after he fell in the bathroom," a Klang Valley resident, who declined to be named, told ST.

Malaysia has been struggling to contain a raging Covid-19 outbreak, recording some 20,000 infections and 200 deaths a day.

Despite this, the government has been moving towards opening up the economy, as it aims to vaccinate the entire adult population by October.

On Thursday (Sept 2), Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that Melaka will be moving to phase two and Negeri Sembilan to phase three of the four-stage National Recovery Plan from Sept 4.

This leaves only Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Putrajaya and Kedah in phase one, the strictest level of lockdown, with most social activities curtailed.

The government will also reopen the tourism sector under the travel bubble programme, starting with Langkawi from Sept 16.

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