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COVID-19 fears clear Juárez pharmacies of drugs used to treat lupus, other autoimmune disorders

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CIUDAD JUAREZ – Pharmacies in Juárez are facing a run by El Pasoans and other U.S. residents looking to buy hydroxychloroquine, one of the drugs the president has touted as a possible treatment for COVID-19.

The Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization Sunday for hydroxychloroquine and a similar drug, chloroquine, to treat COVID-19 patients without the required clinical trials.  President Trump has called the drugs a “game changer” during his White House briefings and El Pasoans and others have been buying the drugs in Mexico for weeks now.​ 

Hydroxychloroquine benefits, risks unclear with COVID-19

Health experts have warned that the benefits and risks of using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 aren’t yet well understood.

“They’re asking for it, but we don’t have any,” said pharmacy technician Blanca Rosales, referring to Plaquenil, the brand-name for hydroxychloroquine.  “Providers tell us they don’t know when they’ll have a supply.”

Pharmacies in Ciudad Juárez that cater to El Pasoans and other U.S. customers who cross the border to save on prescription drugs have run out of Plaquenil, the brand name for hydroxychoroquine. Pharmacists say many of those buying the drug want it as a possible treatment for COVID-19. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)

Some drugs that require a prescription in the United States can be bought without one in Mexico. For those drugs that do require a prescription, many Mexican pharmacies have in-store doctors who can offer consultations and prescriptions on a case-by-case basis.

She works at a pharmacy in downtown Ciudad Juárez a block from the Paso del Norte Bridge, where clusters of Mexican pharmacies cater to Americans who cross the border to save on prescription drugs. So many people from the U.S. side routinely shop for their medication in Mexico that one pharmacy speaker blares “golden oldies” songs in English. 

Pharmacies in this Mexican border city have been dealing with a huge spike in requests for Plaquenil, an anti-malaria drug also used to treat the autoimmune disease lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Though there’s hope the drug can help COVID-19 patients breathe better and rid them of the virus, there’s no clinical proof yet. But many people are not waiting.

Some people from the U.S. side of the border bought several boxes of the medication in her pharmacy, Hilda Rayos said. “Lots of boxes, some 10 or 15 at a time,” she said.

Hoarding impacts people with lupus, other autoimmune disorders who need hydroxychloroquine

The hoarding has pharmacists in Juárez concerned for long-time patients prescribed Plaquenil for existing conditions. 

“We’re taking away medication from people who really need it,” pharmacy technician Carmen Zuniga said. 

The shortage has impacted lupus patients in particular.   “I was in shock. What am I going to do?” asked Beatirz, a resident in Ciudad Juárez who did not want her last name used for medical privacy reasons. She’s been prescribed Plaquenil for more than 20 years for lupus symptoms and in the last month has not been able to find one single box. 

She has called multiple pharmacies in Ciudad Juárez and even reached out to relatives in Cuauhtémoc, about 275 miles away, to look for the drug. They told her they knew of a pharmacy that had one box left.

Beatriz wants those who stockpiled Plaquenil out of fear to think about existing patients.

“These people bought a box just to have it in their drawer, maybe using it without needing it. And we need it. I’m not the only patient with this illness in the area. What are these people doing?”

In Ciudad Juárez, she is under a doctor’s care to monitor possible serious side-effects of the drug, something health authorities on both sides of the border advise. They caution people not to self-medicate and to consult a doctor before taking Plaquenil for COVID-19.  

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Angela Kocherga

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners. She previously served as Mexico City and Border Bureau Chief for a group of television stations. She also serves as news director at public radio KTEP. You can listen to stories by her on air at 88.5 FM and online at KTEP.org.

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