This post was written by Nikhil Mankuzhy, a Third Year Medical Student, Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine.
“What do you have to lose?” was a question President Donald Trump stated about trying the medication hydroxychloroquine. Hydroxychloroquine, also known by its brand name, Plaquenil, has been all over the news after some research showed it could treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Some people have wondered if they could take the medication to prevent getting the disease. However, it is important to know there is something to lose.
Hydroxychloroquine is a medication approved for use in malaria, a disease humans can get from mosquito bites in some parts of the world. It can be used as a treatment for people who are infected and to prevent infection in travelers going to areas where malaria is common. Hydroxychloroquine also affects the immune system and is approved to treat conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. However, this medication can have negative side effects. It can cause a rash, allergic reactions, headache, liver problems, and vision loss. In some patients, it can cause problems with the heart, which could possibly lead to death.
As of now, there is no proof that hydroxychloroquine can cure COVID-19 in humans. Because of some studies done in the laboratory, some doctors around the world have begun using hydroxychloroquine in some of their sick patients to see if they would improve. This study is called a “clinical trial,” where they compare patients who get the medication to those who did not to see which patient has a better outcome. While some of these clinical trials showed that patients who were given hydroxychloroquine improved, other studies did not. Also, these clinical trials looked at only a small number of patients, which is why experts do not know if the drug is truly effective. In the United States, the National Institute of Health (NIH) is trying to figure out the best treatment for COVID-19 by using clinical trials with a larger number of patients. These studies will give doctors a better idea if a treatment works and, more importantly, if it is SAFE.
The truth is, at this point, medical experts do not yet know if hydroxychloroquine should be used for COVID-19. While some people who get infected just get fever and cough, others can get a lung infection and have major difficulty breathing. The currently accepted treatment is supportive care, and for some patients that means giving extra oxygen or using a ventilator. The medical community is working hard to figure out what treatments will work, but this unfortunately, will take time. Right now, doctors may use hydroxychloroquine in patients who are part of a clinical trial. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also allowed for emergency use of hydroxychloroquine in patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19, if there is no clinical trial available. Most importantly, people should NOT take hydroxychloroquine without talking with their doctor. On Friday, April 24th, the FDA stated there is no evidence it can prevent getting the disease and it can cause dangerous side effects for people with certain medical conditions.
Questions about hydroxychloroquine and other medications should be asked to a health care provider. The most important way to prevent getting COVID-19 is to practice social distancing and quarantine.