Tamiflu: The key questions

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The Independent Online

How many people have taken Tamiflu?

It has been launched in 80 countries and has so far been taken by 33 million people. The biggest users are the Japanese where, because of crowded living conditions, the drug is taken routinely by all sections of the population.

What does Tamiflu do?

Tamiflu shortens the duration of flu and - crucially in the context of a pandemic - reduces complications such as pneumonia, which could be life saving. It may also prevent flu if given to members of the family of someone who has contracted the infection.

Is it safe to take?

All medicines carry side effects that some people may suffer. They are listed on the product information that comes with the medicine. Patients have to judge whether the risks of the medicine outweigh the risks of the illness it is designed to treat.

How worrying are the reports of adverse reactions to Tamiflu?

When a drug is launched doctors are required to report any adverse symptom or event, such as a rash or heart attack, that occurs when the drug is being used. There may be no link but by keeping a record it is possible to see a pattern that could point to a problem with the drug. In the UK it is called the "yellow card system".

What is the worst side-effect linked with Tamiflu?

The UK product information for the drug lists Stevens-Johnson syndrome in which the skin blisters and sloughs off. The condition can be fatal but it is very rare.

What about the psychological effects?

So far, only the Japanese authorities have judged it necessary to warn about the possibility that the drug could trigger abnormal behaviour, as seen in the Japanese teenagers who apparently committed suicide.

Is the risk worth taking?

In the case of ordinary winter flu, most people are likely to accept only a low risk in any medicine used to treat it. In the case of avian flu, which has killed half of the 124 people it has so far infected, they are likely to accept a higher risk.

Is Tamiflu for everyone?

No. Adults and children over 13 can take the capsules. Children under 13 must be given a paediatric suspension in a dose according to their weight. It is not suitable for babies under one because research suggests it may cross the blood brain barrier.