Sales of potassium iodide, a drug that protects the thyroid against radioactive iodine, surged shortly after President Trump earlier this month tweeted that he has a "nuclear button" that is "bigger" and "more powerful" than North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's, JoNel Aleccia writes for Kaiser Health News.
What is potassium iodide?
Potassium iodide, also referred to as KI, is the same substance often added to table salt to promote proper functioning of the thyroid. The drug can protect individuals who have been exposed to radioactive iodine, which can cause cancer.
According to CDC's website, "When a person takes KI, the stable iodine in the medicine gets absorbed by the thyroid. Because KI contains so much stable iodine, the thyroid gland becomes 'full' and cannot absorb any more iodine—either stable or radioactive—for the next 24 hours."
However, the drug protects only the thyroid, not other organs, according to Anupam Kotwal, an endocrinologist with the Endocrine Society. Further, according to CDC, the drug is most valuable for fetuses, infants, young children, and others with low amounts of iodine in their thyroid.
"This is kind of mostly to protect children, people ages less than 18 and pregnant women," Kotwal said.
A surge in sales
Some companies that sell KI in the United States reported a boost in sales following Trump's Jan. 2 tweet, Aleccia reports.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Alan Morris—president of Anbex, which sells KI pills—said that he's seen an increase in demand since the president's tweet. "We are a wonderful barometer of the level of anxiety in the country," he said.
Troy Jones, who runs the website www.nukepills.com, said that he shipped about 140,000 doses of KI between Jan. 2 and Jan. 3. In a normal two-day span, he said, he would have shipped out about 8,400 doses. "On Jan. 2, I basically got in a month's supply of potassium iodide and I sold out in 48 hours," he said.
Jones sells his pills for 65 cents each to individuals, or for less if they order in bulk. He also sells his pills to the federal government for about one cent each.
"I now follow [President Trump's] Twitter feed just to gauge the day's sales and determine how much to stock and how many radiation emergency kits to prep for the coming week," said Jones. "I don't think he intended to have this kind of effect."
Why federal health agencies don't recommend that individuals stock up on KI
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, states with populations within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear reactor typically stockpile KI in case of an emergency. But neither FDA nor CDC recommend that individuals stock up on KI pills in case of a nuclear emergency.
CDC warns that KI can have dangerous side effects, including "stomach or gastro-intestinal upset, allergic reactions, rashes, and inflammation of the salivary glands," as well as rare adverse effects on the thyroid. Higher-than-recommended doses of KI, according to CDC, could even lead to death.
For those reasons, CDC advises that individuals take KI only when recommended by public health authorities. According to CDC's website, "If radioactive iodine is not present, taking KI is not protective and could cause harm."
CDC postpones grand rounds on nuclear detonation
Separately, CDC on Friday postponed Tuesday's grand rounds to educate health professionals on the public health response to nuclear detonation, and instead, will focus on the severe flu season, CNN reports.
The grand rounds on nuclear detonation was to feature four presentations, titled "Preparing for the Unthinkable," "Roadmap to Radiation Preparedness," "Using Data and Decision Aids to Drive Response Efforts," and "Public Health Resources to Meet Critical Components of Preparedness."
According to CNN, CDC did not respond to a request for comment on the change for Tuesday's grand rounds topic. However, STAT News's "Morning Rounds," reports that some communities are experiencing high flu rates and public health officials want to educate providers on how to reduce the viruses' spread and deal with medicine shortages (Aleccia, Kaiser Health News, 1/11; CDC website, accessed 1/12; Goldschmidt, CNN, 1/15; Thiekling, "Morning Rounds," STAT News, 1/16).
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