Viagra still going strong

Medicine: A year after its U.S. debut, the anti-impotence drug shows worldwide popularity.

May 09, 1999|By KATHLEEN KERR | KATHLEEN KERR,NEWSDAY

Just one year after the anti- impotence drug Viagra burst onto pharmacy shelves, the baby blue pill that roared is being sold in 50 countries worldwide, ranging from Thailand to Chile to South Africa.

How popular has it been? Before gaining government approval in Thailand, Viagra sold on the black market for about $30 per pill -- about triple the U.S. retail price. And before the Canadian government approved the drug, men there flocked across the border to fill prescriptions -- leading some to dub the honeymoon capital of the world "Viagra Falls."

More than 4 million men worldwide had used Viagra since its approval for sale in the United States on March 27, 1998, according to Andy McCormick, a spokesman for the Pfizer Corp., which makes Viagra. And while sales have leveled off some -- dropping from a high of 275,000 prescriptions per week early last May to about 180,000 weekly -- the drug remains highly successful.

"I think Viagra had the strongest start ever," said Kelly Ringen of IMS Health in Pennsylvania, a supplier of pharmaceutical data. "I've never seen a product start as big."

The hype surrounding Viagra has, in fact, left many thinking that, dollarwise at least, it's the most successful drug ever. But that honor, said Ringen, belongs to Prilosec, an anti-ulcer medication that pulled in $2.9 billion last year for 26.7 million prescriptions.

From show biz to the restaurant business, Viagra made its mark quickly, and everybody, it seemed, wanted a piece of the action.

A Nevada brothel owner reported increased business from patrons who used it. And a French chef spiked a fig vinegar and herb sauce with the blockbuster impotence fighter -- all the better to help customers experience la vie en rose.

Then there are the Internet sites -- places in cyberspace where embarrassed men can order prescriptions for Viagra with nary a doctor in sight. In fact, experts have said that Viagra, along with the fen-phen diet drugs and alleged baldness cures, helped prompt an explosion of new Web sites selling prescription drugs, even though taking Viagra without medical monitoring can be dangerous.

Then, of course, there was Bob Dole, a prostate cancer survivor, who took Viagra to overcome erectile dysfunction and extolled its virtues on CNN's "Larry King Live" show -- later becoming a spokesman for Pfizer.

Like Bob Dole, the former senator and presidential candidate, about 30 million American men suffer from erectile dysfunction, and Viagra offers them hope.

Still, all hasn't been rosy for the wonder drug, which has some disturbing side effects.

For one thing, Viagra causes some users to see things through a blue haze, which in some instances can be dangerous. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration recommends that pilots not take Viagra within six hours of flight because they might not be able to distinguish between flight instruments of different colors. Additionally, some men experience headaches, flushing and nasal congestion.

The largest concern, however, has been the 132 men in the United States who died after taking the drug, as of November, according to the FDA. For the most part, the deaths seem to have occurred in men with low blood pressure or heart problems, or in those who used Viagra along with nitrate medications or with "poppers," illegal nitrates sometimes used to enhance sex.

As a result, the FDA ordered a labeling change for the drug noting that people with a history of heart attack, severely low blood pressure or other heart disease should be examined by a physician before using the pill.

But despite the problems associated with Viagra, America -- and the rest of the world -- remains largely enchanted with the drug, with the company estimating that about 225,000 U.S. physicians have prescribed the impotence drug.

What next for the wonder drug?

A preliminary study by Columbia Presbyterian urologist Dr. Steven Kaplan found that Viagra did little to help sexual function in women, although there are anecdotal stories to the contrary. But Pfizer maintains high hopes and is conducting its own study on the effects of Viagra in women; results are due around midyear.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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