Photograph — WHO

Over the years, hydroxychloroquine has been used for the prevention and treatment of malaria until it gained emergency use authorization from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in March based on preliminary data showing a faster recovery of hospitalized patients with severe disease. But a new study has shown that the anti-malaria drug puts patients at a higher risk of death.

Patients who took chloroquine, a synthetic antimalarial drug which hydroxychloroquine is derived from, are also more likely to develop irregular heart rhythms, said the report published last week in the Lancet journal. Available in the United States by prescription only, the drug can be used for either prevention or treatment of malaria.

It would be recalled that U.S, President, Donald Trump during a press briefing in the White House said he was taking the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure against COVID-19, even though scientists have warned about its side effects. The two drugs are being given to some hospitalized COVID-19 patients who have severe symptoms plus one or more risk factors, reports show.

The new study on the drug and COVID-19, with over 96,000 patients from 621 hospitals across six continents, shows that 14,888 patients were treated with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, either alone or in combination with a microbe.

Researchers of the study at Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and other institutions observed patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19 between December 20 and April 14, of which nearly 10,700 died. 

After controlling for multiple factors, including age, race, sex, and underlying health conditions, the study found out there was a 34 percent increase in the risk of mortality for patients who took hydroxychloroquine and a 137 percent increased risk of serious heart arrhythmia. 

Chloroquine was widely used in Nigeria and other parts of the world where malaria is prevalent until it was abolished after people started developing resistance to it, a senior resident neurologist with the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, Daniel Otokpa, told Premium Times. He also said one of the adverse effects of the drug is damaging the functions of the eyes and the ears.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the Presidential Task Force (PFT) on the pandemic at a briefing warned Nigerians against using the drug in the treatment of the virus, advising to desist from it. The drug has not been declared a cure for the disease, and there is a possibility of chloroquine poisoning if one indulges in self-medication with the drug, it said.

But the general opinion on the effectiveness of the drug for treating the virus has been divided. Bauchi State governor, Bala Mohammed, who was the index case of COVID-19 in his state, told journalists early this month that he was administered with Chloroquine, Zithromax, and Vitamin C during his successful treatment for the disease.

As a result of this, the governor said COVID-19 patients would be treated with the drugs. On its usage, Mohammed said he would rather ask medics managing the state’s coronavirus patients to treat them with chloroquine and Zithromax than watch them die of the disease.

In an apparent reaction to the governor’s statement, the National Agency for Food Administration and Control issued a warning to Nigerians not to use any drug for the treatment of the coronavirus that is not approved by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. “The agency is concerned about reports on social and other media of drugs or vaccines to cure COVID-19,” NAFDAC’s Director-General, Mojisola Adewale, said.

By Ahmed Iyanda.

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