Who Is Addressing the Availability, Safety & Efficacy of our Medications?

I watched all three presidential debates this summer with health care being a time-consuming topic for all. Universal health care and Medicare-for-All, with or without an option for private insurance, were debated and discussed at length.

At the same time NBC Nightly News presented a story documenting that all our antibiotics come from production in China. With globalization policies, which promote moving production to lower cost overseas factories, there is no longer any production of antibiotics in the USA. A former member of the Joint Chief of Staffs, citing the current trade conflicts and China’s aggressive military stance in the Pacific, considers this a security issue. I have heard not one question or comment on this topic in the debates?

This week, once again, the blood pressure medicines losartan and valsartan were recalled because they contained potential carcinogens. These generics were produced in India, Asia and Israel. These same drugs have been recalled multiple times in the last few years for similar problems.

Due to reduction in funding for FDA inspections, many of these foreign plants have not been inspected for years. We can add recalls of generics to drug shortages. We suffered a shortage of intravenous fluids for hydration because the primary production site in Puerto Rico was destroyed in a hurricane. We had shortages of morphine and its derivatives for treatment of orthopedic trauma and post-surgical pain. They substituted foreign-produced short acting fentanyl. I saw pediatric ER physicians unable to administer the most effective treatments for sickle cell crisis in children because it required the use of a narcotic drip to offset the dramatic pain the treatments induce as they stop the crisis.

Then there are the psychiatric patients on antidepressant generics who are paying hundreds of dollars per month for products that wear off in 16 hours rather than 24 as the brand product did. Their symptoms creep back in allowing them to tell time based on the reduced efficacy of these products. By law, generics are required to provide 80% of the “bioavailability” of the brand product but what does that mean and who is testing?

This all began when the Reagan Administration closed the FDA research lab. Prior to that, all new products were sent to that lab for approval prior to being released in America. On their watch, a pharmaceutical product never had to be recalled. Big Pharma complained they took too long as did some consumer groups. This resulted in the defunding and closing of the lab. Products are now outsourced to private reference labs and their reports are sent to the FDA for review. The frequent drug recalls contrast to the success of promoting safety when the FDA did it themselves.

Isn’t it time for the health care debate, especially the presidential debates, to discuss the safety, efficacy, supply and cost of pharmaceutical products? I am all for bringing production home to the USA, restoring the FDA funding for the reopening of their lab as an impartial test site and putting the cost of repeatedly testing the generics for efficacy even after approval and release on the backs of Big Pharma. Let’s see these topics introduced to the health care debate too.

Pradaxa: More Concerns. More Myocardial Infarctions?

Pradaxa is part of a new group of anticoagulants (thrombin X inhibitors) that eventually will allow anticoagulation by the pill route without requiring patients to alter their food and medication intake and avoid foods and medications that interfere with the anticoagulant as patients must do with Warfarin. Pradaxa additionally eliminates the need to take blood tests (INR/ PT) to monitor the dosage as one has to do with Warfarin (Coumadin).

There is a large commercial advertising campaign underway on TV and print media to encourage patients with atrial fibrillation to ask their doctors to switch them from Coumadin to Pradaxa (Dabigatrin).  The campaign bases its claims on the RE-LY trial of 18,000 patients at 80 medical centers throughout the world who took the 150 mg dosage and had significantly fewer strokes than patients taking Warfarin.  The original study was criticized because many of the patients in the Warfarin (Coumadin) group were not on enough Warfarin or at a therapeutic PT/INR to prevent embolic strokes so the comparison with Pradaxa may not be valid. Another criticism involved the fact that Pradaxa can cause major bleeding and there is no antidote to stop the bleeding. Patients on Pradaxa who are bleeding are advised to undergo hemodialysis to remove the drug from their system because there are no medications or treatments available to stop Pradaxa related bleeding.

One wonders how the Food and Drug Administration approved this product for general use under these circumstances without conducting further testing?  The issue becomes even more confusing with the addition of data presented by Ken Uchino, MD, and Adrian Hernandez MD, PhD of the Cleveland Clinic in the online version of the Archives of Internal Medicine. They claim that by reviewing the RE-LY data there is a 38% relative increase in the risk of a myocardial infarction (MI) or heart attack in the Pradaxa group. In an accompanying editorial in the same journal, clinicians at the Hadassah- Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem wrote, “The robust finding that Dabigatran is associated with increased rates of MI (heart attack) is alarming and emphasizes the need for continued critical appraisal of new drugs after phase III trials.”

In my practice I generally will not switch to a new or controversial medication until it has been on the US market for at least one year. I make exceptions for orphan drugs, products to treat incurable diseases with no other choices available. The 12 months gives the medical and scientific community a chance to see how the medication performs and what unexpected adverse effects may be associated with it.

Thrombin X inhibitors are the wave of the future. With no way to stop the bleeding, and data on their safety and efficacy still accumulating, they are just not ready for prime time yet.