Kenyan doctors are still using Ivermectin, a drug meant for head lice, to treat Covid-19 patients, even after it was declared unfit for human use by the national pharmaceutical regulator.
Week-long investigations by the Nation have identified Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa as the places where the drug is used the most.
“It is being sold at between Sh100 and Sh500 per tab in the pharmacies while it may be cheaper in vet pharmacies in rural areas, but I would assume private hospitals would charge higher,” said Dr Ahmed Kalebi, a consultant pathologist in Nairobi.
“We do not give it as outpatient, unless the patient is admitted here and it is the consultant who prescribes,” explained an official whom the customer care desk of a private hospital in Nairobi introduced to our undercover investigative team as the official in charge of the Covid-19 isolation ward. She wanted to know whether we wanted the drug as outpatient buyers.
“I am currently dealing with cases of patients who have come to me after they were put on the drug but nothing changed, or in other instances, they are badly off, which means I now have to attempt to undo the damage,” a senior Covid-19 isolation ward doctor who works at a major private hospital in Kenya disclosed to the Nation.
Three months ago, when Kisumu and 13 other counties in the lake region were grappling with a devastating surge in Covid-19 infections, a resident of Migosi Estate tells Nation he caught the virus. Due to the lack of bed space in the hospitals, he opted for home based care system treatment. A nurse would check on him often and days later, his two family members living with him got the virus too. The three were given a number of medications, including zinc, Vitamin D3, Ceovit, Azithromycin, and Ivermectin, among others.
“We got the prescription from a doctor. Ivermectin 6mg was to be taken daily for five days. Ivermectin full dose cost Sh630,” he said.
“It’s antiprotozoal drug, given orally most of the time. It acts by agonising the GABA cells (the principal inhibitory neurotransmitter -- which means it blocks nerve impulses in the central nervous system),” said a Kisumu-based clinician who has been using it on patients.
In Mombasa County, a patient who last week tested positive for Covid-19 and is currently being treated with the drug said she had no other choice.
Dr George Njoroge, the founder Centre of Africa’s Life Sciences (Coals), which is based in Naivasha, says using the drug to treat Covid-19 is “deadly”.
Scientists recently tested the drug on humans but found no positive effect, even after administering up to 400mgs — which is not recommended even for animals due to its toxicity.
In an official response, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) made it crystal clear that it has only approved the use of Ivermectin to treat lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis, one of many neglected tropical diseases.
“Current evidence does not support the use of Ivermectin for treatment or prevention of Covid-19, and thus is not licensed for use in management of Covid-19 in Kenya,” the official response reads in part.
According to the US National Library of Medicine, Ivermectin, taken orally or as an injectable, is used to treat head lice infestations that occur frequently in children aged three to 11 years as well as other external parasites and for skin conditions such as rosacea, a common skin condition that causes blushing and visible blood vessels in your face. The Ministry of Health (MoH) said it had, in collaboration with WHO and coronavirus case management experts, drawn up a revised guideline for use.
“These consolidated guidelines for the prevention, control and management of Covid-19 in Kenya provide updated recommendations,” said MoH.
Ivermectin is currently on international health regulators’ radar — it is seen to be potentially harmful according to the WHO.
“The FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] has not reviewed data to support use of ivermectin in Covid-19 patients to treat or to prevent Covid-19; however, some initial research is under way. Taking a drug for an unapproved use can be very dangerous,” says the FDA.
“You can also overdose on Ivermectin, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, hypotension (low blood pressure), allergic reactions (itching and hives), dizziness, ataxia (problems with balance), seizures, coma and even death,” it warns.
For three consecutive days, the administrators of the city private hospital declined to speak to the Nation as we sought an explanation as to why the drug was being administered and sold to Covid-19 patients in disregard of MoH guidelines and other global regulators.
“The CEO is the only one who can explain and he is away,” said an official.
Additional reporting by Hellen Shikanda,