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Viagra Possibly Linked to Blindness

May 27, 2005 | CNN ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

COOPER: There's a disturbing new report out tonight about a possible devastating side effect of popular impotence drugs like Viagra and Cialis. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating whether the drugs cause a rare form of blindness. Already, the government is looking into reports that 38 users of Viagra suffered permanent vision loss. To put that in perspective, 28 million men take these drugs, so 38 is a relatively small number, but alarming nevertheless. 360 MD Dr. Sanjay Gupta is following the story, joins us from Atlanta with the latest Sanjay.

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, yeah, the numbers are very small, that's the first thing to point out here; 38 Viagra users, also four Cialis users and one user of Levitra having these sorts of problems.

Important to put this in context a little bit. There has been some known visual problems with Viagra in the past. Not blindness per se, but difficulties with colors. Actually, seeing bluish and greenish hues after use of this particular medication. So there is a little bit of a history there.

But now what we're specifically talking about is a sort of stroke-like thing in the back of the eye. That's the optic nerve there. Those are some of the blood vessels actually turning dark. That's what happens in this particular condition, and what is causing a permanent sort of visual problem here.

We're talking about all of the various drugs for erectile dysfunction, again, Viagra, Levitra and Cialis. If you look at that, again you see the animation there, but what's important to point out is that this is just an association. No one yet, Anderson is drawing an exact link between any of these medications and blindness. They're saying they're seeing this in small numbers. They're investigating a little bit further right now, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. I want to listen to what the Pfizer Vice President Michael Berelowitz had to say about the reported problems linked to his drug, to Viagra. Let's listen.

MICHAEL BERELOWITZ, PFIZER: We've looked in 103 studies at 13,000 patients. And basically remembering, these are the patients who have erectile dysfunction. These are people who have erectile dysfunction by the very people who will be taking this treatment, and we did not see any cases, we did not see any cases of NAION in those studies.

COOPER: I mean, he seems to be inferring there's absolutely no connection. What have these studies found?

GUPTA: You know, it's interesting, Anderson. I have talked to the researchers who actually conducted these studies in detail about this. What you will find, first of all, interestingly, is if you look at this sort of stroke condition of the eye, it exists in the general population among people who have never taken one of these medications. That's worth pointing out.

But in the people who did take the medications, what got everyone's antenna sort of up was the timing association. Meaning, they take the medication, then they'd have a visual problem. They wouldn't take the medication, they didn't have a visual problem. Then they would take it again, and the visual problem would come back. So it was that timing that sort of got everyone sort of concerned.

Again, it's an association at this point. They haven't proven that it actually causes this, but they do say that the same people who are most likely to be taking these drugs, Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, are also the same people who are more likely to just have these strokes in the first place. So it's hard to figure out what's causing what here, Anderson.

COOPER: So a patient comes to you and says, should I stop taking these? Should I keep taking them? What do you tell them?

GUPTA: Well, first of all, you know, there's no direct link now between the drugs and the blindness. So you can't say for sure to stop taking these medications. If you've ever had a problem with your eyes in the past, if you are at high risk because of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, history of smoking, things like that, then you could be at higher risk for stroke. Then it's probably worth talking to your doctors about. Numbers are very small, Anderson. Most of the people watching today, they will never have this happen to them.

COOPER: All right. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, appreciate it.


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