Doctors and patients throughout the region are quickly adjusting to the recall of the osteoarthritis drug Vioxx, three days after its maker pulled it from the market.
Dr. John M. Grobman of the Orthopedic Professional Association in Gilford said Vioxx is just one of the anti-inflammatory drugs used to treat arthritis. He said his office and others in the association are starting to receive calls from patients using the drug.
“We are telling our patients to check with their primary care doctors and to stop using Vioxx. We are trying to get all of them off from it,” he said.
Grobman said the latest study of the drug use shows a real and dramatic increase in the risk for cardiac attacks.
“The study showed it was four times more versus those not on it. Thatâ€™s a significant increase,” he said.
When Kathy Smithson of Somersworth, who works as a waitress at Strafford Farms restaurant in Dover, experienced sharp shoulder pain three weeks ago, her doctor prescribed Vioxx to reduce the inflammation. A week after she started taking the drug once a day, she had her cholesterol checked and learned it had gone sky-high.
After learning that the drug could double the risk of heart attacks and stroke, Smithson wondered if the Vioxx was to blame. She is glad she stopped taking the drug before anything bad happened.
Smithson was just one of millions of people worldwide who scrambled to find alternative medicines after Merck & Co. made its stunning announcement. It spurred some to contact lawyers about potential suits over heart damage possibly caused by Vioxx. Doctors said potentially tens of thousands of patients might have suffered problems from the drug, though it is not clear whether anyone has died from it.
Merck, the worldâ€™s third-largest drug company, was reeling Thursday, as its market value dropped by more than one-quarter, or $26 billion. The company sold $2.5 billion worth of Vioxx in 2003 and advertised it heavily.
Many doctors praised Merckâ€™s action, but questioned why the company and the Food and Drug Administration hadnâ€™t acted sooner. Various studies over the last four years have linked Vioxx with heart problems, but the company consistently downplayed the risk, saying the studies were flawed or inconclusive.
For Lois Bald of Rochester, the problems linked to Vioxx make her even more leery of taking any drugs because of the unknown side effects they can create.
When she was living in California in 2000, Bald, 73, was involved in a car accident that injured her right shoulder. Her doctor prescribed Vioxx to ease the pain, but she ended up having to retire as a high school teacher.
Bald said she was on Vioxx for three to four months and could not stay on the drug because it made her feel nauseous and sick, “and it didnâ€™t help me at all.”
After learning of its potentially deadly side effects, Bald is also glad she didnâ€™t stay on it for very long.
“It tells me one thing the (more) I can do without medication, the better I am,” she said.
Linda Grant, 55, of Barrington also took Vioxx for her arthritis two years ago, but stopped when it bothered her stomach. Her mother-in-law in Maine has been taking the drug for quite some time for her arthritis and did not experience any side effects.
Now that she canâ€™t take it anymore, Grant said, “I donâ€™t know what else she is going to do.”
Carmen Bean, 59, of Rochester said she suffers from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis in 95 percent of her body. She has been taking Ultracet after Vioxx didnâ€™t help relieve her pain.
“It never really surprises me that any of the new medications they put out end up having these side effects,” Bean said.
She said the blame should lie squarely on the shoulders of the drug companies, who are more interested in making billions of dollars than in really helping people in pain.
Mary Burnham, 70, of Hampton agreed with Bean.
“I do wish they would test these things more in the lab than on the public,” Burnham said.
She prefers to do light exercises to relieve the pain her arthritis causes her hands and joints over medications because she fears the potential side effects. The problems linked to Vioxx only deepen her fears of prescription drugs.
If Lauri Thompson, 39, of Dover had listened to her doctor after she experienced lower back pain following the birth of her son six years ago, she would have been on Vioxx. Now she wonders if she would even have been at Doverâ€™s Apple Harvest Day, where she was doing face painting Saturday.
She believes the lesson people should heed is to try alternative treatments before they go with a prescription drug to relieve their pain. Instead of taking Vioxx, she chose to work with a chiropractor and do stretching exercises and that worked well for her.
Pharmacists are advising customers to contact their doctors for a recommendation on what to use instead of Vioxx.
One longtime Vioxx user who asked not to be identified said he has been on the medication for more than a year and a half and wonders if he was at risk.
He has contacted his physician and received a prescription for an alternative medication which, while it is a portion of the cost of Vioxx itâ€™s a twice daily medication.
Vioxx, he said, was the only medication which relieved the pain he was experiencing. He tried a host of over the counter medications but had little success with them.
Vioxx is part of what is called the Cox 2 family of drugs. The Vioxx study is the first one on drugs in this category.
“This was the first of the big studies to show this problem. Weâ€™ll have to wait and see about the others,” Grobman said.
The Vioxx user raised the same question. He said he didnâ€™t want to stay on drugs in this category.
“Iâ€™m wondering if they too will prove problematic in the near future,” the user said.
Concern about Vioxx was not just limited to people who had taken the drug, but also loved ones who had used it.
A Dover man who did not want to give his name said he was worried about his mother in Jordan. She had been taking Vioxx to relieve arthritis pain in her knees before she switched to Celebrex a year ago.
When he first learned the news about Vioxx, he e-mailed her and telephoned her to see if she was still taking Celebrex instead of Vioxx. But now his mother is experiencing heart problems and may need surgery to repair one of her heart valves and he is not sure if Vioxx may have contributed to that health problem.