Docs reiterate warning on hydroxychloroquine

confused health professional

The RACGP is once again urging Australians not to seek out or use hydroxychloroquine to “cure” or “prevent” the COVID-19 virus

The warning from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners follows after Sky News host Rowan Dean argued over the weekend that doctors and patients should be free to decide whether to take hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment for COVID-19.

In addition, Sydney-based federal MP Craig Kelly recently claimed that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews could be criminally liable for blocking the use of the drug to treat the virus. 

The text of the post has since been updated to remove any reference to Mr Andrews, stating instead that “continuing to deny the right of medical professionals prescribing this drug to a patient” arguably constitutes conduct that in some states “has criminal penalties that carries [sic] severe penalties of up to 25 years’ imprisonment for individuals”.

Hydroxychloroquine is a medication used to prevent and treat malaria and is also used in the treatment of conditions including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, explains the RACGP. A similar drug which is not marketed in Australia—chloroquine—is used to treat various types of malaria.

Recently, the National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce updated the strength of its recommendation against the use of the drug, stating definitively that “it should not be used as a treatment for anyone with COVID-19”. The Taskforce also recommends against the use of hydroxychloroquine for post-exposure prophylaxis.

Meanwhile the World Health Organization discontinued the Solidarity Trial’s hydroxychloroquine arm as interim results showed little or no benefit.

These drugs have risen to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic following reports that billionaire Clive Palmer bought nearly 33 million doses of hydroxychloroquine while taking out full-page advertisements stating the drug could “wipe out the virus”. 

Meanwhile US President Donald Trump confirmed in May that he was taking hydroxychloroquine to “ward off” COVID-19, despite his public health officials warning it may be unsafe.

On Tuesday, RACGP Victorian Chair Dr Cameron Loy reminded Australian patients that the drug should not be used in preventing or treating the COVID-19 virus.

“The pandemic is causing a lot of anxiety and many people are looking for a ‘magic bullet’ that will keep us safe. There are several trials featuring this drug occurring across the globe, including an Australian clinical trial featuring 2,000 frontline healthcare workers,” said Dr Loy.

“However, the evidence base is simply not there to say that hydroxychloroquine can be used to prevent the COVID-19 virus or treat it. 

“The results of trials so far have proven inconclusive or found the drug to be ineffective as a treatment. It can also have severe and even deadly side effects if used inappropriately.”

Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine pose well-known serious risks to patients including cardiac toxicity -potentially leading to sudden heart attacks; irreversible eye damage; and severe depletion of blood sugar- potentially leading to coma, explains the TGA.

Dr Loy warned that sourcing the drug to treat or prevent COVID-19 could have disastrous consequences.

“Rowan Dean asked: ‘What do we have to lose if we embrace such treatments?’ That is an excellent question with a simple answer.

“In addition to the potential harms that can result from using the drug, off-label use of hydroxychloroquine can have significant consequences for patients who are normally prescribed the drug for various medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.

“If people rush out and acquire hydroxychloroquine patients may not be able access it due to inappropriate use reducing stock levels. It is vital that we have enough stock available for those who actually need this drug right now so please think about them.”

The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia has consistently advised pharmacists to refuse dispensing of hydroxychloroquine outside of approved indications.

On 24 March it welcomed new restrictions on who can initiate therapy, to limit use of hydroxychloroquine to currently approved indications.

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