An Arizona man died after ingesting chloroquine phosphate, an aquarium cleaner, after he and his wife confused it for the medication known as chloroquine, per NBC News. The wife, who was not named, is reportedly in critical condition.
The couple decided to use the cleaner as a form of self-medication in an attempt to prevent contracting COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The wife told NBC News that she was cleaning a pantry when she saw the bottle they had once used to clean a koi pond. The word "chloroquine" registered with her after they had watched press conferences in which President Donald Trump touted an anti-malarial medication as a potential therapy for people presenting COVID-19 symptoms, based on limited and anecdotal feedback.
"I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, 'Hey, isn't that the stuff they're talking about on TV?'" the woman told NBC News. She added that she and her husband, who were both in their 60s, were "afraid of getting sick."
Shortly after the Arizona couple ingested the cleaner on March 23, they presented symptoms of being poisoned. "I started vomiting. My husband started developing respiratory problems and wanted to hold my hand," the woman said. On the 911 call, she added she "was having a hard time talking, [and] falling down." Her husband died shortly after they were rushed to the hospital.
Simply put, no one should ingest any medicine or chemicals before first consulting their doctor. But that hasn't stopped two drugs — chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which CNN notes is an analog of the former medication — from coming to the forefront of the national conversation, and even earning potentially dangerous air time at the president's press conferences.
On March 20, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said there was no evidence that hydroxychloroquine could be used as a prophylactic to prevent COVID-19, a disease for which there is no known cure or vaccine. Trump later called hydroxychloroquine a potential "game changer" on Twitter, in a post that has since been retweeted over 100,000 times. As BuzzFeed News reports, the trials that may be suggesting such therapy have been heavily contested by experts.
In a statement, Dr. Daniel Brooks, the medical director of Banner Poison and Drug Information Center in Arizona, cautioned against self-medication. "Given the uncertainty around COVID-19, we understand that people are trying to find new ways to prevent or treat this virus, but self-medicating is not the way to do so," he said.
There have been at least two additional fatal overdoses by people taking hydroxychloroquine in recent days, BuzzFeed News reports, both in Nigeria. The country's center for disease control has since issued a statement that self-medication can be harmful and even deadly.
Moreover, the false theory that the medication form of chloroquine could be used as a COVID-19 prophylactic is already impacting people who have been prescribed the medication to treat their lupus. According to ProPublica, people who do not have lupus have been cleaning pharmacies out of their stock, which puts the 1.5 million Americans who do have it at risk.
"For many people with lupus there are no alternatives to these medications. For them, hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine are the only methods of preventing inflammation and disease activity that can lead to pain, disability, organ damage, and other serious illness," the Lupus Foundation of America said in a statement. "An increase in lupus-related disease activity not only significantly impairs the health and quality of life of people with lupus but will also place further strain on health care providers and systems in a time of crisis."
One emergency room nurse with lupus told ProPublica that she believes Trump's statements have led to the hysteria and shortage. "When the president stands on the stage and he makes uninformed statements that are not backed by science and are not vetted by professionals who have expertise in that area, he leads an entire massive nation to think what he says is true,” she said. “You have people running around thinking there’s a cure for coronavirus, that there’s medicine."
According to the Center for Disease Control, the best way to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus is to practice social distancing, wash your hands well and often, and avoid leaving the house if you feel sick. Doctors recommend you schedule a telemedical appointment with a professional before heading to an emergency room or hospital.