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Ivermectin is an antiparasitic medicine that cures diseases such as river blindness and scabies by paralyzing and killing the parasites. It can also inhibit some viruses from infecting cells, thus preventing the virus from spreading, like with dengue fever. 

The drug isn’t common in the US. There were 146,212 prescriptions written for ivermectin in 2019, according to the drug database ClinCalc. In comparison, the cholesterol-lowering atorvastatin, better known under the brand name Lipitor, hit 112 million prescriptions that same year. Ivermectin was primarily prescribed as a lotion, which is common to treat lice and scabies. 

Where ivermectin is used more frequently is in developing countries where parasites are more common and deadlier. 

“Ivermectin provides significant health benefits in treating parasitic diseases, especially in areas of extreme poverty in low middle-income countries,” said Dr. Gerald W. Parker, associate dean for Global One Health, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University.

Scientists at pharmaceuticals giant Merck discovered ivermectin in 1975 and began using it in 1981 to treat scabies, river blindness and other parasitic diseases carried by worms and lice. It’s on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines for a basic health care system. More than 250 million people take the drug across the globe each year, and it’s effective for animals as well. The researcher who developed ivermectin received the Nobel Prize in 2015. 

The drug is considered safe when taken in appropriate dosages. Side effects for ivermectin vary depending on whether it’s taken orally to treat intestinal infections or topically for skin infections. Oral tablets can cause drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and, in very rare cases, an increase in heart rate and the onset of seizures. Side effects for the topical ivermectin can include skin rash and irritation, while dry skin and stinging pain are severe and rare.

Can ivermectin be used to treat COVID-19?

The US Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization and other agencies don’t suggest ivermectin’s use to treat COVID-19. They cite the lack of data from large, randomized trials confirming the drug’s effectiveness to treat the disease. 

Some doctors who cite multiple smaller studies and firsthand experience say otherwise. They claim ivermectin does work to prevent people from developing symptoms from COVID-19 and can shorten recovery time for those already infected. Many of those studies, however, have issues because of small numbers of participants, poor methodology or flawed data. 

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