Leave the animal medicine for the animals

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I think it was the drug.

My first fascination with the vet profession. As a young child accompanying my father to the local veterinary clinic, I was overwhelmed by the realization that medicine was only for animals. Small brown bottles, large glass jugs, and boxes of giant pills lined up on shelves and in large display coolers. Medicine for cows, for pigs, for dogs. How on earth did anyone know what it was all about, what diseases it was used for, how to get this stuff into an animal? I couldn’t understand.

It took 21 years of school and thousands of tuition fees, but eventually I figured out what all of these drugs were for. The stuff in those bottles and jugs became the everyday tools I used to help sick animals get better or prevent the problem from occurring in the first place.

In contrast to my doctor colleagues, as a veterinarian, I have used these drugs directly on my patients. I carried them around in my truck, sucking them up in syringes for injections, or squirting them on the back of a cow. Inevitably, I managed to inadvertently give myself medication every now and then. I would catch the bouncing splash of water on my face or inject calf vaccine into my hand instead of my calf.

Most of the time it never crossed my mind to purposely treat myself with one of these animal products. I had heard stories from vet school classmates who cured hangovers by adding horse pain relievers to their orange juice, but I never had the courage to do it myself. Also, my accidental exposures were usually not comfortable. Organophosphate infusion that gets splashed on your face is not good for you. One prick from a 7-way vaccine needle will make you wish your hand would fall off. Some exposures have much worse results: Google “Micotil” at some point. Of course, veterinary drugs are only intended for animals.

Which brings me to ivermectin.

Ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug, is a lifesaver for people affected by parasites in developing countries. It’s inexpensive, widely used around the world, and also FDA approved in the United States. It is used to control parasites in farm animals and pets for the same reasons – to kill intestinal worms in horses, heartworms in dogs, and lice in cattle. I’ve used gallons of the stuff in practice.

This mundane dewormer is now getting a lot of press thanks to COVID-19.

A 2020 Australian paper described ivermectin restricting the growth of the COVID-19 virus in tissue culture flasks in a laboratory. People got upset about it. Doctors started using ivermectin on sick COVID-19 patients, and some have prescribed it preventively. Doctors can do this if they are prone to it, even though the FDA has not approved its use in COVID-19 patients.

However, some people have decided that it is too tedious and expensive to consult their doctors about this. They bought up ivermectin in all of its forms – horse paste, cattle pour-on, sheep segregation – for self-consumption. I’ve heard the stories: ranchers drink a shot of pour-on (along with their rubbing alcohol carrier) or dab it – Old Spice style – on the wrists and back of their ears in hopes of fending off COVID-19.

A recent five-fold increase in poison control that requires exposure to ivermectin shows that this is a terrible idea.

It turns out that ivermectin products for animals (e.g., a 1250 pound horse) are very easy to overdose on a person. The lucky victims of poisoning get by with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The unfortunate ones? Blurred vision, hallucinations, seizures, and a stay of several days in hospital – along with unknown long-term consequences.

Under no circumstances should you take animal ivermectin – or any other veterinary medicine – on yourself. If you really want to use it, get a doctor’s prescription. Better yet, just skip it.

Although the studies are still ongoing, there aren’t enough patient numbers yet, which to me means that ivermectin’s potential is still largely unanswered. If it really was the answer to our COVID-19 prayers, we would know by now.

To feel safe ivermectin – or any drug – as a worthwhile preventive against COVID-19, it would have to be administered to millions of people with extremely rare side effects while also being tremendously effective in preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations and illness demonstrate. If only there was such a thing, free and available to every American.

Oh wait a minute …

Russ Daly, DVM, is the extension vet at South Dakota State University. He can be reached by email at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at (605)688-5171.