Dr Hamish Meldrum: There is no such thing as a 100 per cent safe drug

"However, there are wider issues here and while I would never want to minimise the pain and tragedy of the individuals who have suffered as a result of Vioxx, patients do need to be aware that there is no such thing as a 100 per cent safe drug.

"Unfortunately, any drug that has a real benefit will also have a negative side. If aspirin was to be invented now, it would probably be refused a licence because of all the side-effects it has, even though it has proven to be a highly successful and effective drug.

"When Vioxx first came out, it was shown to have fewer of the gastric side-effects of older drugs, and that was a real benefit. Now it seems to be emerging that there may be an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

"While there is of course an onus on the drugs companies to make sure their products are safe as possible, doctors and patients have to weigh up the risks and benefits of treatments and be aware of both the positive and the negative effects.

"Since Vioxx has been withdrawn I have had patients who say that they are in pain and suffering because they can no longer be prescribed the one drug that had worked for them.

"One of the problems is that during the trials stage, drugs tend to be tested on young, healthy individuals. But many of the people who were taking Vioxx would have been elderly and may have suffered a heart attack or stroke even if they hadn't been on the drug. Sometimes the facts only emerge when the drug is out there and being used by large numbers of the population."

The author is chairman of the GPs' committee of the British Medical Association and a practising family doctor in Bridlington, East Yorkshire

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