Kicking the Wyeth Habit Saves Women’s Lives

An editorial cartoon from the summer of 2002 shows a TV announcer leading a newscast with: “A major US drug maker is warning women if they stop hormone therapy abruptly, its stock price will fall.”

Wyeth, maker of Prempro and Premarin, has indeed seen its stock price fall since the news from a study presented at a breast cancer conference in San Antonio in December broke that breast cancer fell 7% from 2002 to 2003 and estrogen positive breast cancer, 15%, presumably because women went off HRT.

And just as the initial Women’s Health Initiative HRT findings drew a chorus of “yes buts” from those financially linked to HRT–the women in the study were “too old”, took HRT too long, should have taken only one hormone, shouldn’t have had heart disease–already spins and denials are coming out.

Maybe the number of breast cancers hasn’t dropped at all, opined experts quoted by ABC News Medical Unit, but mammograms have dropped. (Or the population dropped 15%–did they think of that?)

Withdrawing hormones couldn’t produce a decrease in breast cancer that quickly, say other sources though estrogen-fueled cancers can indeed regress, not form at all or not become mammogram detectable in three years, says New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata.

Others are ranting that news like this could scare women away from legitimate HRT uses. Many have just returned from the FDA hearings on antidepressant warnings where they said the same thing.

Unfortunately, HRT loyalists have more than the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center study which broke the news to refute. A November study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found an even larger drop in breast cancer rates in California where there was also a larger drop in HRT use.

And epidemiologists at the Northern California Cancer Center found breast cancer down 11% in 2004 using data from a National Cancer Institute program and from Kaiser Permanente.

Despite the fact that HRT was found in 2002 to cause a 26% increased risk of breast cancer, 29% increased risk of heart attack, 41% increased risk of stroke, and 100% increased risk of blood clots, Wyeth continues to market Prempro and Premarin. Especially because it faces 3600 legal cases and withdrawing or discontinuing the drugs would be an admission of guilt.

Not that they don’t already look complicit.

Testimony in an Arkansas breast cancer trial this year revealed that a Wyeth salesman wrote company executives in 2000, “The desire for increased sales has overruled our company’s ethical responsibility to promote our products safely.” He also testified that Wyeth Chairman and CEO Robert Essner told his reps at a Prempro launch party the company was creating an “HRT revolution” that would keep women on the drug from menopause to death and that there should be “no boundaries, no limits to your selling effort.”

But the latest news makes it even tougher for Wyeth to plead ignorance. With 14,000 women who were expected to get breast cancer NOT GETTING IT as analysts now claim, quitting HRT practically looks like the cure.

And what possible warning label could you put on a drug that is apparently so deadly and works so fast, anyway? That if you go off it, the manufacturer’s stock price will fall?

MARTHA ROSENBERG is a Staff Cartoonist at the Evanston Roundtable. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Providence Journal. Arizona Republic, New Orleans Times-Picayune and other newspapers.  She can be reached at: mrosenberg@evmark.org



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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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