Female sexual dysfunction – which is claimed to affect up to two thirds of women – is a disorder invented by the pharmaceutical industry to build global markets for drugs to treat it, it is claimed today.
Drug companies have invested millions in the search for a female equivalent of Viagra, so far without success. But while doing so they have stoked demand by creating a buzz around the disorder they have created, according to Ray Moynihan, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle in Australia.
Corporate employees worked with medical opinion leaders, ran surveys aimed at portraying the problem as widespread and helped create the diagnostic instruments to persuade women that their sexual difficulties deserved a medical label. But sex problems in women are far more complex than they are in men, encompassing lack of desire, lack of arousal and lack of orgasm and the drug industry's narrow focus is failing them.
Mr Moynihan, who first investigated the drug industry's role in female sexual dysfunction a decade ago, says it illustrates a wider problem about the creation of new diseases, and the widening of existing boundaries for treatment with designations such as pre-diabetes, pre-hypertension and pre-osteoporosis, for which the latest treatments are aggressively promoted.
In his new book, Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals, which is previewed in the British Medical Journal, he says: "Drug marketing is merging with medical science in a fascinating and frightening way. Perhaps it is time to reassess the way in which the medical establishment defines common conditions and recommends how to treat them."
In 2005, Pfizer, makers of Viagra, funded a survey which showed 63 per cent of women had sexual dysfunction and that testosterone and Viagra might be helpful. In 2006, Procter and Gamble, makers of a testosterone patch for women, sponsored a survey showing one in 10 postmenopausal women had hypoactive [low] sexual desire disorder (the company sold its drug business in 2009). In 2008, Boehringer Ingelheim, makers of flibanserin which is claimed to boost the female libido, sponsored a survey which also showed one in 10 women was in need of help.
Efforts by the companies to meet the need have subsequently foundered. Pfizer pulled Viagra from the market for women after trials showed it had no greater effect than placebo. Procter and Gamble's testosterone patch was rejected in 2004 in the US, over fears it raised the risk of cancer and heart disease and Beohringer Ingelheim's drug, flibanserin, was rejected by the US Food and Drug Administration in June on the grounds it had failed to deliver the agreed benefits while carrying the risk of serious side effects.
Mr Moynihan warns that although the drugs have so far failed, more are in the pipeline and claims that "the drug industry shows no signs of abandoning plans to meet the unmet need it has helped to manufacture". A spokesman for Pfizer said: "We currently have no plans to develop medicines for FSD."
Failed female treatments
Viagra Initial indications suggested the drug's success for men could be repeated for women. But trials failed to show a benefit over placebo.
Testosterone A testosterone skin patch to correct a hormonal deficiency in women was rejected in the US over fears it increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Flibanserin Developed as an antidepressant, the drug was claimed to boost libido. But its risks were deemed to outweigh benefits.