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Pharmacists are on the front line of a second pandemic running parallel to COVID-19: medicine misinformation and falsified treatments

Pharmacists are not only on the front line of the campaign against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also combating a secondary, parallel pandemic of “falsified medicines, medical supplies and ‘infodemic’ of misinformation”, say Australian researchers.

A literature review conducted by researchers from the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the University of Queensland has explored the role pharmacists can play in deterring medication misinformation. 

The pandemic had fuelled a surge in counterfeit medicine sales — a parallel pandemic of fake “essential” medicines (including the COVID-19 candidate drug chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine) and other medical supplies, they said.

“Since COVID-19 was declared as a pandemic, a global pharmaceutical crimes police unit has captured tens of thousands of counterfeit medicines and medical supplies claimed to cure the coronavirus. This is mainly attributed to a decline in the production capacities of world’s two largest producers of medical supplies, China and India, following lockdown”.

An “equally pressing and parallel emergency” is medication information overload and misinformation surrounding COVID-19, the authors said.

“The WHO has described that the outbreak of and response to COVID-19 ‘has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ – an over-abundance of information.'”

“Several unsubstantiated claims regarding cures and transmission and/or exposure have taken hold on the internet and social media. Such misinformation and conjecture are of great concern as they represent a serious challenge in tackling the pandemic,” they said.

“Moreover, medication misinformation in the absence of scientific validation can potentially spread unnecessary fear and panic, undermining the public’s willingness to follow legitimate public health advices and to take proven precautionary measures.” 

“A classic example is the recent media announcements that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are the “game changers” and potential cure for COVID-19”.

This had prompted inappropriate stockpiling and use by the public. Inappropriate stockpiling of hydroxychloroquine also resulted in substantial shortages affecting arthritis or lupus patients— conditions for which it has been proven effective, the authors said.

Moreover, people in many countries had been confused into taking unproven and at times poisonous ‘cures’ for COVID-19 including:

  • ingesting methanol (which resulted in hundreds of deaths in Iran)
  • using cocaine
  • taking Brazil’s chloroform and ether based drug ‘loló’
  • exposure to the sun or to temperatures higher than 25 °C
  • widely circulated myths on social media around taking Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), vitamins: C, D or a hot bath.

Pharmacists are “key health professionals with the required skills and training to contribute to the fight against these emergencies,” the authors said.

“Primarily, they can be a relevant source of accurate and reliable information to the public or other fellow health professionals thereby reducing the spread of COVID-19 medication misinformation.

“Pharmacists are in the front-line to act as stewards, and at the local level, they are involved in updating the prescribers with new legislative changes implemented by the TGA. In addition to hydroxychloroquine, there has been an increased demand in relation to adjunct treatments, such as salbutamol, ibuprofen, and paracetamol as well as pressure from the public to get more refills leading to shortages at various locations across Australia,” they said.

“This has resulted in enforcing new limits on dispensing of prescription and sales of over-the-counter medicines to one-month supply or one unit… Again, pharmacists are on the front line enforcing these new restrictions whilst educating consumers the need for such changes during the pandemic in order to avoid medicine shortages”.

“It is therefore imperative for pharmacists become aware of such developments to provide evidence-based information in a timely fashion,” they concluded.

The paper was published in the journal Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy.

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