Hype, hope and hysteria: welcome to the pill that's made the world quiver

IF YOUR erection lasts for more than four hours, consult a doctor immediately. And stop sniggering at the back of the class, Tompkinson- Minor.

Viagra is a serious business. It has brought hope to thousands of men who suffer from erectile dysfunction. The impotence pill has also been responsible for a plague of bad puns, and the worst epidemic of schoolboy humour since medical records began.

How many times have we read about shares in Pfizer, the company that makes the wonder drug, rising as spectacularly as the afflicted organ? Or about "hardened" criminals peddling counterfeit versions on the black market?

It is not only headline writers who have been snorting with laughter since Viagra burst on to the scene. There was the airline pilot who, banned by Air New Zealand from taking it lest it impair his flying ability, observed: "Maybe they're worried we'll get too much lift when we take off."

Viagra has every ingredient that one could wish for in a news story. Sex, of course, lashings of it, together with the salacious details justified by the important medical angle.

Politics, too; earlier this month it was reported that election candidates in Taiwan were bribing rural voters with bottles of the diamond-shaped tablets.

And gender wars: disgruntled women demanded to know why female sexual dysfunction was not receiving the same degree of scientific scrutiny. It was not long before rumours spread that the drug worked for women too. One guinea pig, Annie Williams, told a tabloid newspaper: "Once Viagra kicks in, your only interest is pleasure. Having an orgasm, or three, is easy."

Not to be outdone, rival companies designed drugs specifically for the girls, including the evocatively named Erogenex.

Then came Viagra wars: as the hype and hysteria grew, there was a dash to claim credit for inventing the drug. Pfizer said that it was a team effort, but one British scientist, Dr Nicholas Terrett, begged to differ, pointing out that his name was on two patents.

Talking of inventions, when Bristol consultant urologist Clive Gingell conducted the first pilot study of the chemical compound used in Viagra, he used a device called a Rigiscan to measure the girth of penises of volunteers and their degree of rigidity in response to the drug. "The results were remarkable," he said. "You could see an increase in the quality and duration of erections."

Finally, every good story needs the added spice of danger, and in that respect Viagra did not disappoint. After the initial euphoria came the first reports of side-effects such as blurred vision: a relatively minor problem, patients may have thought, a small sacrifice in the pursuit of pleasure.

Then came the warnings about the potentially dire effect of unaccustomed exertion on men with weak hearts. And inevitably, the lengthening list of fatalities: 69 in four months, as one newspaper pointed out; another article asked: "Did he die with a smile on his face?"

Joking aside, what man could suppress a shiver at the fate that befell a Dutch tourist who decided to experiment with Viagra while on holiday in Spain? The 50-year-old, according to reports, was in a state of agonising tumescence for 36 hours. His plight was eased by doctors at an Alicante casualty unit, who treated him with a lotion normally used to shrink nasal tissue.

Pity, too, the hapless Harley Street doctor who tried the drug out on himself before prescribing it. "First of all, I went bright red and my eyes began to bulge out of my head," said Dr Richard Petty, medical director of the WellMan Clinic.

"Then my neck started to swell around my collar. My partner started laughing like a drain as soon as she saw me. I had the most whopping hangover, which lasted for hours, although the pill did have the desired effect."

Some elderly patients have turned violent after taking Viagra. An 89- year-old Florida man attacked a woman with a crowbar when she spurned his advances. In Argentina, pensioners have turned down an offer of free Viagra from the state, accusing the authorities of "trying to kill us off".

It has not all been bad news. At the Moonlight Bunnyranch brothel in Nevada, business is said to be booming as older men patronise the establishment again. In Vienna, impotent theatre lovers can buy half-price tickets for the world's first play about the drug: Viagra Makes It Possible 99 Times a Day.

Now spare a thought for the French fertility expert who claims his career is under threat because patients no longer take him seriously. According to Dr Ronald Virag: "People think I am the inventor of the drug. I am frequently called Dr Viagra."

And the Men Who Use and Recommend It

BOB DOLE

The American presidential candidate who stood against Bill Clinton in 1996, was the first public figure to admit trying Viagra. "It's a great drug... I participated in the trials programme," said Mr Dole, 74. The senior Republican, who suffered impotence problems after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer in 1991, added: "Depending on what your problem may be, it can certainly help."

JERRY SPRINGER

The US talk-show host, said the drug made him a "sex addict" after he was caught with a porn star, Kendra Jade, who appeared on his show. "I thought I was a sex superman," said Springer, 54. He was later said to have been thrown out by his wife when she learnt of a secret film made of her husband with Jade and her stepmother, Kelly, sold by the same Internet company that made millions from an X-rated video featuring Pamela Anderson.

HUGH HEFNER

The 72-year-old Playboy mogul, endorsed the drug recently when he said it turned him into a "babe magnet". "It permits you to perform as you like to think you were performing in your twenties and thirties," said the soft-porn purveyor. His estranged wife, Kimberly Conrad, fearing for his health, said he had "gone girl-crazy again", adding "he's already suffered one stroke. If he goes on like this, trying to push back the clock, he'll have another."

BOB MONKHOUSE

Was quoted at the weekend as saying that the drug "works after 40 minutes and lasts for about 90 minutes". Speaking about his active sex life as a younger man, the 70-year-old comedian told a newspaper: "My generation was at it all day long, as well as all night. They did it a lot more than the previous generation ... I was just fortunate with the timing."

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