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Wanted by Pharma: Osteoporotic Bones

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Martha Rosenberg
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Wanted by Pharma: Osteoporotic Bones

Twenty million women have quit hormone replacement in the last two years thanks to its proven ability to cause cancer, stroke, blood clots and heart disease. You don't think pharma is trying to win them back with a scare campaign over thinning bones do you?

After all, pharma doesn't make any money on antibiotics or vaccines or drugs people just use for a few days. Pharma wants to manufacture drugs that healthy people take routinely for the balance of their lives. Like vitamins.

HRT was perfect because it positioned aging itself as a disease* and by definition all women were at risk. Nice marketing, disease mongering, if you can get it.

This explains why Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals and Sanofi-Aventis--which make Actonel--and Roche Pharmaceuticals and GlaxoSmithKline--which make Boniva--have been duking it out in their ad campaigns for the bones of America's aging women. P & G and Sanofi-Aventis even took Roche and GSK to court over the claims in Boniva ads.

Wyeth, which still markets Premarin and Prempro is also getting into the act, hoping to launch Bazedoxifene in 2007. In July, it unveiled an osteoporosis "awareness campaign" with Charlie's Angels star Cheryl Ladd. (Who remembers model Lauren Hutton hawking for HRT?). And there's Eli Lilly & Co.'s Evista which recently received a lot of free publicity from a medical study.

But there are some wrinkles in the new marketing bone-nanza.

Research on women prescribed bisphosphonate osteoporosis drugs reveals they don't like taking daily doses for a condition they can't see or feel. They're not sure they need it (imagine!) and fear becoming addicted.

Nor do they like the fact that for an hour after taking many of the drugs, they can't lie down or eat anything or dangerous side effects can result. (One woman describes it like having a land mine in your throat.)

And the New York Times reports the primary action of current osteoporosis drugs--stopping bone "remodeling" or turnover--may cause rather than prevent bones from breaking. And prevent bones from healing if they do break!^ (Causing the very condition it's supposed to cure--sound familiar?)

Finally there's the scepter of jaw death. There have been 2400 documented cases of bisphosphonate-related jaw osteonecrosis since 2001, according to UPI, a potentially life-threatening condition often triggered by dental work. Class law suits have already been filed in two states alleging Merck, who makes Fosamax, hid the side effect for greater profit. (Some say renal toxicity is also a side effect.+)

Of course even without side effects from hell, not everyone buys the every-women-is-at-risk, "silent thief" osteoporosis party line. Especially since most "experts" rhapsodizing about the latest study or drug are on the dole from the drug companies.

Gerontologists point to the role of side effects from others drugs and trip hazards in fractures in the elderly.

Nutritionists point out that women in non-industrialized nations--without meat and dairy excessive Americans diets--aren't as prone to osteoporosis.

And women themselves are some of the biggest osteoskeptics. Like Deb Turbergen, 53, of Fort Wayne, IN who says 10 years of Fosamax therapy failed to stop her bone loss but two years of working out on a treadmill did and she even gained bone.

But as "bone wars" begin to heat up in ad campaigns and in the courts, it's apparent what pharma has learned from the Vioxx and HRT debacles. Raise prices to cover lawyers fees and full speed ahead.

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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by (more...)

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