Viagra link to 17 deaths in past year

DOCTORS HAVE recorded 17 deaths in Britain since last July linked with Viagra, the pill for impotence that is still officially banned on the NHS.

Official figures collected by the Medicines Control Agency show 182 "adverse reactions", ranging from rashes to heart attacks, were linked with the drug in the 10 months to the end of April.

There were 32 reports of heart disorders of which 13 were fatal. However, the figures do not reveal whether the men involved had pre-existing heart disease or were taking other drugs for a heart problem. The remaining four deaths included two strokes, a suicide and one described as a "collapse".

The side-effects recorded include four cases of priapism, a persistent and painful erection. Doctors warned that this could be a risk with the introduction of Viagra to the club scene as a recreational drug. Release, the drugs charity, said Viagra had found a place "on the fetish side of club culture".

The figures highlight the risk of taking the drug without medical supervision. In men with an existing heart condition or who are taking nitrate drugs for heart disease, Viagra can be dangerous. However, because it is still not officially available on the NHS, some people are obtaining it illegally over the Internet and from mail order addresses in the UK. One organisation called Moneybox isselling eight pills for pounds 240 or pounds 30 a pill, although the price charged by Pfizer, the manufacturer, is less than pounds 5 a pill.

Viagra was licensed in September but a Department of Health circular advised doctors not to prescribe it, other than in "exceptional circumstan- ces", until guidelines had been agreed. Ministers announced the guidelines earlier this month, which will restrict NHS prescribing to men with a narrow range of medical conditions, amounting to 17 per cent of the 2.5 million estimated to suffer from impotence. Other men will have to pay for the drug privately but will be able to obtain it from their GP.

The new guidelines, which require parliamentary approval, are not due to take effect until July and the official blanket restriction on NHS prescribing is still in force. The British Medical Association fears that the 10-month ban has driven patients to get the drug from alternate sources.

Dr David Delvin, director of the Medical Information Service in Cambridge, who has treated more than 100 private patients with Viagra, said it was a "very safe" drug provided patients were screened by a doctor first. "The number of adverse reactions has gone up as more people are taking it."

The figures are based on the "yellow card" reporting system under which doctors are encouraged to record any side- effect that might be linked with a drug.

The reports do not imply the drug caused the side-effect but they enable patterns to be picked up, which may indicate a problem.

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