Suddenly the whole world is talking about dexamethasone – a drug that high-altitude climbers and trekking tourists traveling in the Himalayas or the Karakoram have known for a long time. According to the participating scientists, a British study showed that the death rate of COVID-19 patients on artificial respiration decreased by about one third when doctors administered dexamethasone to them. However, the steroid showed no effect in a mild course of the disease.
British Health Minister Matt Hancock spoke of “brilliant news” and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, President of the World Health Organization (WHO) called it a “lifesaving scientific breakthrough”. German scientists warn against premature euphoria. Thus, the side effects of the drug would also have to be taken into account. Moreover, it is obviously only useful in severe cases and does not replace a vaccine against the coronavirus that is still needed.
One of the “Three D”
Dexamethasone is old hat in altitude medicine. For decades, the steroid has been used as an emergency treatment for life-threatening high altitude cerebral edema, the most dangerous form of altitude sickness. But often dexamethasone is also taken as a doping substance on the highest mountains of the world, as part of the “Three D” – as the legendary climber and doctor Oswald Oelz once explained to me: “Mountaineers take diamox for a long time, then dexamethasone, a cortisone preparation, during the ascent and finally, to mobilize the last resources, dextroamphetamine – a poison which was given to the pilots in the Second World War to make them more aggressive. In the history of alpinism, many climbers have died as a consequence of taking these amphetamines on Nanga Parbat and other mountains because they pushed themselves beyond their limits.”
If the preliminary findings of the British corona study are confirmed, it would still be good news for countries like Pakistan or Nepal. As dexamethasone is widely used at high altitude, it is usually available in the states where the highest mountains in the world are located. And it is cheap too.