Whether in newspapers, on television, or via Internet SPAM, everyone is hearing about the removal of VIOXX from the market. VIOXX was an overwhelmingly popular anti-inflammatory initially touted as a safe alternative to aspirin. Now, several years after VIOXX was introduced, research indicates that individuals taking the drug for 18 months double their risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.
David Graham, associate officer of the FDA's Office of Drug Safety, says that VIOXX may be responsible for 55,000 deaths over the past 5 years. Graham also reported that when he raised questions regarding the drug's safety he was pressured to keep quiet by FDA officials. He concluded, "VIOXX is a terrible tragedy and a profound regulatory failure."
The FDA has long had a "cozy" relationship with drug companies. Successful drugs create billions per year in profit—sadly, corruption follows this kind of money. Graham called attention to 5 other drugs carrying "serious risks"; a diet drug called Meridia, an acne drug called Accutane, a cholesterol drug named Crestor, another anti-inflammatory named Bextra, and an asthma medication called Serevent.
The FDA is standing by these drugs. I suppose that we are to take comfort in this and presume them safe. This is hard to do since, according to Graham, the agency tried to suppress the evidence implicating VIOXX. A few years ago Baycol, a cholesterol-lowering drug similar to Crestor, was pulled from the market after being linked to at least 52 deaths.
Despite continuing reports that the FDA is "in the pocket" of drug companies that it supposedly regulates, people continue to buy into the medication-model supported by the agency. As an example consider VIOXX. Before VIOXX we had the non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS)—drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin. In 2002 The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) stated that every year approximately 100,000 Americans are hospitalized and 16,500 die from NSAID use—primarily due to ulcers. These figures prompted development of the "COX-2 Inhibitors"—drugs such as VIOXX, Celebrex, and Bextra. A 2002 NEJM study pitted the COX-2's against the traditional NSAIDs in individuals prone to ulcers. The results—both groups had about the same probability of recurrent ulcers! Rates of renal failure, fluid build-up in the legs, and hypertension were also nearly the same in both groups. A 2000 study sponsored by Merk (the makers of VIOXX) found that VIOXX increased the risk of heart attack five times!
Nonetheless, doctors continued to prescribe the more expensive, colossally advertised COX-2s. Now that VIOXX is off the market many patients are being placed on Bextra--also condemned by Graham. Will people follow the advice to take this drug?
Interestingly, there is research indicating that safe, natural remedies can be as effective as the pharmaceutical COX-2 inhibitors. One herbal blend of turmeric, ginger, holy basil, and other herbs was pitted against a pharmaceutical COX-2 inhibitor in a study at Columbia University. The herbal blend was found to be about 90% as effective—with no side effects. Since herbs are not patentable, they are not profitable. Sales reps for natural remedies cannot match the $25,000 dollars a year spent on each medical doctor by pharmaceutical companies.
Next consider the group of cholesterol lowering drugs called statins, to which Baycol and Crestor belong. These drugs account for a 20 billion dollar-a-year industry. They tax the liver (liver enzymes must be checked while a patient is on these drugs) and can cause muscle disease. Some studies have linked statins to depression. In Cuba, where medicine is socialized and not profit drive, policosanol is prescribed for high cholesterol. This cheap, benign substance naturally occurring in sugar cane and beeswax has been pitted against the most popular statins. In each study individuals in the statin groups dropped out due to side effects. No participants dropped out of the policosanol groups. Policosanol is so safe that people with compromised liver function can take it. Best of all, in each study the policosanol group matched or outperformed the statin group in lowering "bad" cholesterol and raising "good" cholesterol.
We need to reconsider our relationship to health. We cannot rely on current prescription practices that are a result of pharmaceutical advertising. We have given too much power to an industry that is more concerned with emptying our pocketbooks than improving our health. We must make a commitment to a more holistic form of healthcare, one that enables us to stand by the healing power within rather than by profit-driven pharmaceuticals.