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Coronavirus: Turkey says hydroxychloroquine dramatically reduces pneumonia cases

Most coronavirus patients taken to intensive care or put on ventilators are there because they have developed pneumonia
Health workers in Istanbul mourn Professor Cemil Tascooglu, the country's first medical professional to die from Covid-19 (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Turkey has made significant progress in treating coronavirus patients in the early stages of the disease with the controversial malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, Turkish officials have said.

“Turkey had stockpiled one million units of them before the first case appeared in the country,” Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Tuesday evening in a live broadcast, without specifying the name of the drug.

A senior Turkish official with knowledge of the stockpile told Middle East Eye that the drug was hydroxychloroquine and that it was being sold under the brand name Plaquenil.

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“Many countries prescribe this drug to intubated patients,” Koca said. “However, our science board suggested that the drug is really beneficial in the early stages to prevent the spread of the virus in the body.”

The health minister reminded viewers that one of the fundamental features of the disease was lung infection.

“We believe beginning early treatment [with this drug] played a big role in reducing the rate of lung infection among the patients,” he said.

Ever since US President Donald Trump promoted the drug as a “game-changer” for treating patients, medical professionals around the world have expressed mixed views on its use.

Trump’s comments followed clinical research by French doctor Didier Raoult, who claimed that he saw promising results on a small sample of patients in February.

However, Raoult’s research has come under fire over its methodology.

Many doctors argue that the drug has not been tested enough yet to be used to treat coronavirus patients.

However, earlier this month, doctors in China reported that hydroxychloroquine had helped to speed up the recovery of some patients who had mild symptoms.

Dramatic fall in pneumonia rates

The Turkish official told MEE that the drug was effective against pneumonia, which is seen as among the leading causes of death for coronavirus patients.

Most of the patients taken to intensive care or who are put on ventilators are there because they have developed pneumonia. 

“The minister, instead of underlying the importance of the drug itself, has pointed out the benefit of using the drug in the early stages, before the patient becomes severely ill,” the official said.

Statistics released by the Turkish health ministry on Tuesday showed that since beginning the treatment, new cases of lung disease among coronavirus patients have greatly decreased.

On 24 March, 60 percent of coronavirus cases registered were patients with pneumonia, while on 6 April that had fallen to 19.5 percent.

turkey coronavirus pneomonia

The Turkish Clinical Microbiology and Infection Diseases Association (KLIMIK) said last month that data on the use of the drug was still limited, and warned that it should not be used as a prophylaxis (a treatment given to prevent a disease).

“It should be appropriate to use it in the early stages for some of the coronavirus patients with symptoms,” the statement said.

The association warned that it would not be appropriate to use the drug for medical workers to protect themselves before engaging with the virus.

Mandatory confinement extended

Koca said hospitals in Turkey had enough stocks of the drug and that the country was in a better state than many Western nations.

“Our intensive care units capacity is only at 62 percent use. Even the use of bed capacity hasn't reached 50 percent,” he said.

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Turkey announced on Tuesday that 76 more people died from the disease in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 725.

The health ministry said that 3,892 more patients had tested positive, the highest in a single day so far, with the surge in numbers taking the total to 34,109 cases.

However, health officials said given the increase in the numbers of daily tests, which reached 20,023 on Tuesday, the new number of infections was not a matter of concern because the numbers were stalling.

The country has conducted 222,868 tests so far.

Since the virus reached Turkey, the government has unleashed an array of measures aimed at curbing its spread, including closing down schools, universities and cafes, banning congregational prayers, indefinitely postponing sporting events and suspending flights to many countries.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan extended a mandatory confinement order for everyone under the age of 20, but stopped short of declaring a complete lockdown.

The government earlier imposed a curfew on senior citizens above the age of 65.

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