Thursday, October 02, 2014

Drug Side-Effects: When the Cure is Worse Than the Disease

Treating disease is not easy. For one thing, despite all of the advances in medical technology, there’s still so much we don’t know about the human body and the disease process. Many of the treatments that we take for granted have only been in use since the early twentieth century.  For example, the antibiotic penicillin was not discovered until 1928 and did not reach wide distribution until 1935.

When penicillin was introduced it was considered a wonder drug because it was able to prevent hospital-borne infections, and cure diseases that were previously considered terminal, like syphilis. However, there were also people who were allergic to penicillin, which made the drug dangerous for them to use. Overuse of penicillin also led to more resistant bacterial strains and the need for even stronger antibiotics.

Penicillin is not the only drug that has issues; in fact, most prescription drugs have side-effects of some sort. However, there are those with side effects so bad that it makes patients wonder if the cure is worse than the disease.


Risperdal is an anti-psychotic drug used primarily to treat schizophrenia, but could also be used in the treatment of bipolar disorder and irritability associated with autism. The drug is designed to make patients with these diseases more “even,” and less likely to harm themselves or others.

All of the diseases that are treated by this medication can be seriously debilitating and also difficult to treat.

For example: Schizophrenia causes delusions, visual and auditory hallucinations, and manic-like behavior. It’s not unusual for one antipsychotic drug to alleviate one symptom but have no effect on the others. Sometimes a patient has to try multiple drugs, and multiple drug combinations, before finding one that will alleviate all of the symptoms.

For many patients Risperdal, either alone or with other drugs, gives them relief from their symptoms and allows them to lead normal lives. Without it they could end up institutionalized, unable to function at all. But Risperdal also has its problems, some of which have made it the focus of a lawsuit.

The Risperdal lawsuit alleges that several patients have developed debilitating and even deadly side effects such as seizures, diabetes, breast cancer, and sudden changes in blood pressure. The issue is that many patients were unaware of these side effects when they took the drug. For some it might not have made any difference, Risperdal might have been the only medication that worked for them. But others could have opted to try a different drug to avoid the side effects. Additionally, it is alleged that drug reps were advised to suggest the drug for off-label use, such as dementia and anxiety, which would have meant thousands more people exposed to potentially deadly side effects.


Fen-Phen is a diet drug that was introduced in the 1990s. It was a combination of two drugs – fenfluramine and phentermine – and was touted as a miracle drug for weight loss. Fenfluramine was an appetite suppressant designed to make people eat less, and phentermine was an amphetamine designed to increase the heart rate and raise the metabolism. At its peak, Fen-Phen was prescribed to an estimated six million people, and many people swore by its effects. Unfortunately, like Risperdal, Fen-Phen also had its share of issues, and was the subject of a lawsuit.

The Fen-Phen lawsuit came about after the drug was taken off the market due to reports of heart valve damage in 30 percent of patients who took the drug. Heart valves are structures that prevent blood from flowing backwards inside the heart. The heart has four valves, all designed to keep blood flowing in the right direction. When a valve is damaged, blood cannnot flow properly and that can put you at greater risk for a heart attack. Damaged heart valves are incurable; once the valve is damaged the patient either needs to take medication and make lifestyle changes to prevent further damage, or they need to have the faulty valve replaced.

Fen-phen was also linked to a potentially fatal lung condition called primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH), or high blood pressure in the arteries in the lungs. The danger of PPH is that the arteries in the lungs can constrict and thicken, which means they can’t carry as much blood and the blood can’t get as much oxygen from the lungs.

Millions of people were exposed to these side effects because it was prescribed so freely, even though many health experts warned that the drug should only be prescribed to the seriously obese.

This is a post by Nancy Evans.

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