Men who take ivermectin are at a high risk of becoming sterile, according to a 2011 study from Nigeria.
This is unproven. The study cited in news reports about potential infertility among men has been challenged for its methodology and conclusion, and experts say is inaccurate and misleading.
On 9 September, 2021, local news portal, The Vibes, published an unproven viral story on a research paper which claimed that men who take the anti-parasitic drug, ivermectin, are at high risk of becoming sterile.
In their story, the news portal referenced a US-based news outlet, News Channel 8, which had cited a 2011 Nigerian study which claimed that 85% of men treated for river blindness with ivermectin were found to be sterile.
To further clarify the claims, we spoke to Professor Dr Ting Kang Nee, head of the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.
Originally published by Scholars Research Library in 2011, the Nigerian study looked at the effects of ivermectin on men’s sperm functions among those diagnosed with onchocerciasis, or river blindness. The study purportedly found that 85% of men who were treated with ivermectin for river blindness were sterile.
When shown the research paper, Dr Kang Nee cast doubt on the study design.
“It is not a thorough study as there is no control arm i.e. male patients who had the same conditions but not taking ivermectin. There are no other studies published with this claim so the above claim is very weak,” Dr Kang Nee explained. She added that another issue with the study is the small sample size of only 37 male participants.
Fact checkers from Snopes who analysed the research paper noted a few other errors related to the study. Firstly, they highlighted a lack of a “limitations” section which would have helped “other scientists to understand the context of study findings to interpret the validity of the scientific work”. Apart from that, the study was riddled with typos that should have been caught by scientific editors prior to publication.
On top of that, Snopes found that the journal that had published the paper was also riddled with typos and had been suspended on Twitter for violating platform rules.
Faqcheck Lab was unable to find any similar studies on the effects of ivermectin on human infertility, but found two studies from 2001 and 2010 that looked at the impact of ivermectin on sheep sperm motility. Though the latter study concluded significant effect of ivermectin in sheep, it was later flagged as a potential predatory journal.
While there is clearly no evidence that the drug has an effect on human male fertility, Dr Kang Nee warned of potential harmful toxicity issues relating to the unprescribed use of ivermectin. “As members of the public, we should not take this medicine without direction from our doctor,” she advised.
Ivermectin has been a hotly debated topic in Malaysia, with proponents of it claiming it has “powerful benefits” against COVID-19. In August 2021, the Ministry of Health stated that the National Poisons Centre had begun receiving cases of poisoning due to consumption of ivermectin. In the statement, the MOH listed several side effects, but did not suggest infertility as one of them.
Our analysis of the spread found similarities with that seen by Snopes in their fact check:
“The purported study was shared to Reddit and Twitter where the post received thousands of engagements across both platforms.” - Snopes, 8 September 2021
When the story of ivermectin causing sterility in men surfaced in Malaysia, social media users seized the opportunity to mock proponents of ivermectin and anti-vaccine advocates.
A number of posts on Twitter garnered thousands of engagements which amplified the reach of the unproven claims over social media.
As we previously reported, claims of ivermectin’s effectiveness are unproven, and its unprescribed use carries risks. However, infertility was never listed as a potential side-effect in humans.
As much as disinformation around the supposed benefits of ivermectin against COVID-19 is dangerous, the same must be said for those spreading misinformation using unproven studies to mock those taking it.
As of 23 September, 2021, The News Channel 8 report has been removed, while The Vibes has updated the article’s headline to reflect findings from the FDA, with the original article still published.
As fatigue sets in from the battle against COVID-19 in Malaysia, it is no wonder that there are some who are grasping at potential solutions outside what is known. Others, who are merely misinformed, are victims of those peddling falsehoods.
Dr Kang Nee encouraged the public to wait for the results of the clinical trials being undertaken by the Ministry of Health to determine the efficacy of the drug against COVID-19 infections, which is expected to be published next month.
University of Nottingham Malaysia: Muhammad Farhan Shahmi Abdullah and Gayathry Venkiteswaran
University of Malaya: Amin Idham Razalee, Lee Kai Ci and Aq'sa Sumayya Nor Hazalan