BY JUSTINE COLEMAN – 09/29/21 06:00 AM EDT
An avalanche of misinformation about the antiparasitic drug ivermectin’s ability to treat COVID-19 has caused a series of national problems, from increased calls to poisoning centers to a shortage of the medicine itself.
Patients have become desperate for a treatment that’s most commonly used for livestock and have taken their disputes over ivermectin with hospitals to court.
Disinformation has flooded the internet, where dozens of Facebook groups centered around ivermectin remain active despite insufficient evidence that the medicine works in treating people for COVID-19.
It’s also gone well beyond the internet to popular podcast hosts like Joe Rogan, who has touted the medicine to his millions of listeners.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), other state health departments and even Merck, the drug’s main manufacturer, have all warned against using ivermectin for COVID-19.
Still, online influences supporting the controversial COVID-19 treatment endure.
It’s all raising questions about whether the government needs to do more to step in.
“The promise that there are miracle solutions to an illness is really persuasive,” Jennifer Reich, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver. “And the idea that individuals can manage their own health, if they read a lot, gather information and make their own decisions is really powerful.”
Media Matters for America found 60 public and private Facebook groups dedicated to ivermectin last month, before the social media giant removed 25 of them after the liberal watchdog’s report. But the other groups still involve more than 70,000 combined users.
Media Matters released a report on Tuesday concluding that Facebook users are getting around the platform’s moderation strategies by posting links and screenshots of misinformation in the comments of posts and by purposely misspelling keywords such as ivermectin and vaccines.
“Unfortunately, due to Facebook’s lax moderation of the content on its platform, these evasion techniques are working, and misinformation is thriving on the social media site,” the report reads.
Kayla Gogarty, the associate research director for Media Matters, criticized Facebook for not adequately responding to such misinformation in groups.
“The fact that Facebook has not taken much action against these groups is definitely problematic,” she said.
A Facebook spokesperson told The Hill that the company has removed 20 million pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram for violating COVID-19 misinformation policies.
“As we enforce our policies against COVID misinformation, we know people will keep trying new tactics to get around our policies and we are constantly evolving to stay ahead of them,” the spokesperson said.
“We will continue to enforce against any account or group that violates our COVID-19 and vaccine policies,” the statement continued.
A spokesperson also told The New York Times that the platform removes “content that attempts to buy, sell or donate for ivermectin” and any claims that the drug is “a guaranteed cure or guaranteed prevention.”
Ivermectin is not the first drug to gain traction online as a possible COVID-19 treatment despite lacking evidence. Several experts compared the dewormer’s popularity to that of antimalarial hydroxychloroquine that former President Trump promoted last year.
Yunkang Yang, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University, said that influential figures, including Republican politicians, have contributed to the discourse of ivermectin as a “miracle cure.”
For instance, Rogan declared to his millions of listeners that he was taking ivermectin following his COVID-19 diagnosis.
“It would be hard to imagine this information gaining any traction without [their] participation,” he said.
Misinformation surrounding ivermectin specifically is also not new, as the drug was proposed as a possible treatment earlier in the pandemic, including in some studies retracted due to flawed or fabricated data.
But ivermectin-related calls to poison control centers this year have more than tripled compared to the same period last year, with 1,440 calls through Sept. 20, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
July, in particular, saw a five-fold increase in ivermectin calls compared to the “pre-pandemic baseline,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some cases have been fatal, with New Mexico reporting this week two deaths from misusing ivermectin as a COVID-19 medication.
The spikes in ivermectin misuse sparked the FDA to issue an advisory against using the drug for the virus earlier this month.
“You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it,” the agency said on Twitter.
While the FDA has approved ivermectin to treat parasitic worms, lice and skin conditions like rosacea among humans, the drug is more often used to treat animals, including cattle and horses.
In addition to taking unprescribed ivermectin, several cases have emerged where people have been using these animal products.
“The issue happens when you have inappropriate use where you have a non-human product, for example, that is meant for cattle that has a different formulation composition,” said Ziad Kazzi, a professor of medical toxicology at Emory University.
“The strength of the formulation is different than what you would use in a human,” said Kazzi, who is also the secretary treasurer of the American College of Medical Toxicology,.
Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the government can always counter specific COVID-19 rumors such as ivermectin’s effectiveness, but it may not be perceived as a “trusted messenger.”
Instead, she said the government needs to develop a national strategy to fight against misinformation in general so Americans are “more resilient to future misinformation.”
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“That can kind of be more of a role for government, rather than deciding what’s true, helping people have the tools to figure it out for themselves,” she said.
“We’ll see this again with something else,” she added. “And we have to realize that we’re going to have to be pushing back against these rumors for a long time to come.”