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Features|Coronavirus pandemic
Why Viagra isn’t a ‘cure’ for COVID-19
We examine the implications for the country’s pandemic strategy if lockdown rules have been broken by the UK government. Plus, there is no scientific evidence that Viagra can be used to treat COVID-19.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
By Dr Amir Khan
19 Jan 2022
Most people will be familiar with Viagra, otherwise known as sildenafil, for its use in treating erectile dysfunction. But a nurse in the UK recently claimed that the drug had saved her life when she was being treated for COVID-19. Speaking to the British newspaper, The Sun, 37-year-old Monica Almeida described how she had been admitted to hospital on November 16 and placed on a ventilator after her condition deteriorated. She told the newspaper that she was given Viagra, which opened up her airways and saved her life. Almeida eventually left the hospital on December 24.
So, can Viagra really be used to treat COVID-19?
Well, we have to be very careful when discussing any potential treatments for COVID-19. We have seen in the past, with drugs like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, that people have taken them and caused themselves harm before studies have shown them to be effective. Neither ivermectin nor hydroxychloroquine has been proven to be effective against COVID-19 in scientific studies.
It is important to note that while Viagra is available to buy over the counter without a prescription in many countries, there are potential side effects associated with the drug. Some of the most common are headaches, hot flushes, vision problems and an upset stomach. It can also adversely interact with other medications. When taken by someone who is also using heart medication, for example, it can lead to dangerously low blood pressure and cause them to collapse.
There is a real danger in even a small news story promoting the use of a drug such as Viagra to successfully treat COVID-19. Two years of living through a pandemic has left many people incredibly fearful of the virus and willing to try anything to protect themselves. With that in mind, it is important to say that Viagra or any drugs related to it are not currently approved for the treatment of COVID-19.
Vaccines provide the best protection against coronavirus. If you do test positive for the virus, and feel unwell, regardless of your vaccination status you should contact a healthcare professional who can assess you and decide if your symptoms warrant any of the scientifically proven treatments.
The more we learn about COVID-19 and how it affects the cellular pathways in our bodies, the more we can put forward new treatments to combat it. But every new treatment must undergo rigorous testing and show clear benefits before being recommended for use.
Viagra has been shown to be effective at treating high blood pressure in the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary hypertension. And in 2020, a paper looked into the potential benefit of using Viagra to treat COVID-19 by exploring the science behind it. According to the researchers, both bacterial and viral lung infections can cause widespread inflammation in the lungs. COVID-19 has been shown to do this. As inflammation sets in, it can damage the lung tissue, cause the formation of blood clots and increase the risk of pneumonia. The study proposed that Viagra could potentially counteract some of these effects and wanted funding to investigate this further. But it did not offer any conclusions beyond this.
Viagra is thought to increase the amount of a substance known as nitric oxide, which can improve blood flow and circulation to the lungs. A study in China is looking into the potential beneficial effects of Viagra on the lungs of those being treated for COVID-19 with oxygen rather than ventilation. They believe it may open up the tiny blood vessels affected by inflammation and improve circulation and oxygen delivery to lung tissue.
Trials are continuing but there isn’t any firm evidence yet to suggest Viagra should be used to treat COVID-19. For the nurse in the UK, it is likely that it was the combination of medication and care she received from NHS staff that saved her life rather than any single treatment. So, until we have robust scientific evidence that Viagra can be used to treat the virus, people must not be tempted to buy it to self-medicate.
Looking back: What I was doing in May 2020
But this hasn’t been the only COVID-related story making headlines in the UK. The country has been in the grips of a political scandal following the admission by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he attended a gathering in the garden of his official residence, 10 Downing Street, in May 2020, when the country was in its first lockdown and such social gatherings were forbidden. Johnson says he thought it was a work meeting, although a leaked email told those attending to bring their own alcohol.
It has since emerged that there was not just one party at Downing Street. Sue Gray, a senior British civil servant, is carrying out an independent investigation to establish the nature of the parties and whether they broke COVID-19 restrictions.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
At the time of the alleged parties, people in England were allowed to meet only one person from another household, as long as they met outdoors and remained two metres apart. They were not allowed to visit the homes of their relatives or friends, unless for care or medical reasons, and the police were fining anyone who was caught breaking those rules.
That the government that imposed those rules while seemingly not complying with them has led to a social media uproar, with many people posting photos showing what they were doing in May 2020 and how the restrictions were affecting their lives and livelihoods.
I remember clearly what I was doing. As well as working in COVID-19 triage sites called Red Hubs, I was visiting my patients in care homes who had been infected with COVID-19.
These patients tend to be my most vulnerable, as they are older and have multiple underlying conditions. At the time, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) was so overwhelmed with COVID cases that I had to make difficult decisions about who would most benefit from hospital admission and who not to subject to highly invasive treatments that would likely not benefit them. For those in the latter category, my focus was on keeping them in their care home, in surroundings they were familiar with, and keeping them as comfortable as possible.
It was a difficult time for their relatives who were unable to visit them. Many of the partners of care home residents were themselves elderly and shielding. They relied on me to call them with regular updates on their spouse’s condition. Those were tough, often emotionally charged, conversations. I recall having to tell an elderly lady that her husband had deteriorated during the night and that we were doing all we could to ensure he did not suffer. Later, I telephoned her to let her know her husband had passed away. This is not something I would normally have done over the phone. In other circumstances, I would have visited her at home where I could see her face-to-face, so I could hold her hand and comfort her. Instead, she had to receive that news over the phone. That day will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I am not the only front-line worker who feels aggrieved at the thought that the very people who were encouraging us to stick to the rules were breaking them. My sister is an emergency department consultant in a busy inner-city UK hospital. Due to the sheer number of COVID-19 patients she was coming into contact with, she no longer felt safe returning home to her family after her shift. She was worried she might be harbouring the virus and did not want to risk passing it on to her family. So, she moved into a friend’s empty apartment for several months, isolating from her loved ones. My mother sent her food parcels that we left on the doorstep.
I have spoken to many of my colleagues who worked in hospitals during the pandemic, from junior doctors and nurses to ward sisters and consultants. All of them say how difficult that period at the start of the pandemic was. We didn’t have vaccines to protect us, we didn’t have some of the medical treatments we now know work for COVID-19 and many of them didn’t have a staff room or an area where they could go to just to get some respite from treating the sheer number of patients who were critically ill. They are angry. Not just because of the parties, but because of the constant denials that they ever took place, the changing stories whenever a new photo or email is leaked and the excuses made to try to justify them.
But this isn’t just about front-line health workers, this is about all of us. The people who worked to keep public transport running, the grocery store workers, the postmen and women, the waste collectors, everyone who went to work during that first lockdown to keep the economy and the country going. It is about everyone who stayed at home for the sake of keeping everyone else safe. It is about the people who had to cancel their weddings, who couldn’t attend the funerals of their loved ones, mothers who had to give birth alone, children who missed out on in-class learning. So many people gave up so much because that is what they were told they had to do to keep everyone else safe.
As well as anger, there is concern. Despite what some people may think, we are not out of this pandemic yet. People are still getting sick and unacceptable numbers are still dying. Seeing those in charge breaking the rules around lockdown restrictions will only feed into the feeling of “lockdown fatigue” that many of us are experiencing. The idea was that we were all in this together, but it no longer feels that way. And this rule-breaking will only serve to encourage some people to ditch their masks and caution in public spaces, and in turn risk getting and spreading the virus. Most of these people will survive the infection, but not everyone will. Sadly, a minority will get seriously sick, some will get Long COVID and some may even die.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA
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