This is an edited version of a story first broadcast on Radio Australia Pacific Beat. Read and listen to the original here.
As Papua New Guinea’s COVID-19 cases surge and health services are stretched doctors at the country’s main hospital are prescribing an anti-worm medicine to treat COVID-19 patients, despite the WHO warning against its use.
Ivermectin is used to treat parasitic infections but has gained popularity on social media as a COVID-19 cure despite warnings from health experts.
Port Moresby General Hospital Chief Executive Dr Paki Molumi said it’s being prescribed by some doctors at his hospital because patients are insisting on it.
“My fear is that if we tell the public that there’s a treatment, they’ll be going towards that and not getting the vaccinations that are available,” he said.
The World Health Organization in PNG said there’s even been fake WHO advertisements for the drug posted online.
Dr Paki Molumi said he hoped the Department of Health would issue a directive prohibiting the use of ivermectin for COVID-19 as there’s nothing he can do to stop it right now.
Port Moresby-based Burnet Institute epidemiologist, Dr Stefanie Vaccher said misinformation about ivermectin in PNG is spreading through social media like WhatsApp.
“This morning I woke up to, I don’t know, 20 odd messages in one group about ivermectin and how glorious it is…these are educated doctors, in some cases, who are still propagating this information,” Dr Vaccher said.
“We’re seeing more and more debunking of those trials, there’s been no strong evidence that’s come out [in support].
“All the trials that might have looked good initially – as people delve into those data a bit more – are seeing that there’s often fraudulent data involved, duplicate patients or numbers that just physically there’s no way that those numbers could be repeated and be possible in these kinds of studies. So as they are debunked, hopefully that information spreads.
“Unfortunately, it always seems like the misinformation spreads a lot faster than the correct information,” she said.
East Sepik Governor, Allan Bird recently bought hundreds of tablets for his constituents, in what he claims is a bid to convince them to get vaccinated.
“95 per cent of my people are saying they want ivermectin. So what do I do? What I want to do is find a way I can talk to them. If I don’t have ivermectin, they won’t listen to me.”
Mr Bird’s plan underscores the desperation in PNG, where less than two-percent of the population have had their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and misinformation is rife.