People are dying after self-medicating with unproven COVID-19 drug promoted by Trump

Anti-malaria drugs
(Image credit: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump has touted the decades-old anti-malaria drug chloroquine and its less-toxic cousin hydroxychloroquine as promising treatments for the COVID-19 coronavirus in press briefings and on Twitter, despite warnings from top federal health officials that the drugs aren't approved to fight COVID-19 and could have harmful side effects. The publicity has led to a run on the drugs, leaving people who use it to treat lupus and arthritis unable to fill their prescriptions. There have also been deaths.

Nigeria reported two fatal overdoses of chloroquine after Trump's remarks and its Center for Disease Control pleaded with Nigerians on Friday to not self-medicate with a drug that "will cause harm and can lead to death." Closer to home, a man in Arizona died and his wife is in the hospital after they ingested a version of chloroquine phosphate meant to clean fish tanks, the woman and Banner Health said Monday. The wife told NBC News that she and her husband got the idea to self-medicate after watching Trump's news conference.

"We were afraid of getting sick," she said. They knew chloroquine wasn't FDA-approved for coronavirus, but "Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure." Asked if she had a message for the public, the woman said: "Oh my God. Don't take anything. Don't believe anything. Don't believe anything that the president says. ... Be careful and call your doctor."

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The fish tank version and the anti-malaria drug have "the same chemical structure," Dr. Daniel Brooks, Banner Poison and Drug Information Center medical director, told KTAR News, but using the anti-algae additive to treat coronavirus "is absolutely wrong and unfortunately potentially dangerous." Still, sales of the aquarium version have jumped in the past week, one study found.

Politicians shouldn't be pushing chloroquine or any other drugs not approved to treat COVID-19, University of Toronto clinical epidemiologist Peter Jüni told BuzzFeed News. "You can't imagine how wrong this is, it gives me goosebumps, it is so wrong. ... If you just have millions of people taking a drug with known toxicities, haphazardly, we are going to see major safety problems."

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