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New Consumer Web Site Provides Vital Information

June 14, 2000

New Consumer Web Site Provides Vital Information
About Psychiatric Drugs

Site Contains Objective Information About the Risks and Benefits of
Drugs Used to Treat Serious Psychiatric Illnesses

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Patients with serious mental illnesses, as well as their friends and families, now have a new, comprehensive source of information just a mouse-click away about the drugs used to treat those illnesses.

The “eLetter on Drugs for Severe Psychiatric Illnesses,”? is a new Web site designed to inform mental health patients about the risks and benefits of the drugs used to treat people with serious mental illnesses.

The site offers the latest, most up-to-date news about these drugs. For instance, it features an article about clozapine (Clozaril), a drug available in the U.S. since 1989 that is used to treat schizophrenia and that Australian doctors recently linked to heart inflammation and other heart disease. These adverse reactions are not listed in the drug’s package insert and did not make news in the U.S. The site details the symptoms associated with heart inflammation and the findings of the Australian doctors.

Another feature, just posted on the site, concerns the increased risk of pregnancy for women switching from older antipsychotic drugs to clozapine (Clozaril), olanzapine (Zyprexa) or quetiapine (Seroquel). Whereas the older drugs suppressed fertility and made it unlikely that women could become pregnant, that is not the case for these three newer drugs. Yet the FDA-approved labeling for the drugs fails to mention the need for women of child-bearing age to start using contraceptives if they do not wish to become pregnant. It is therefore likely that tens of thousands or more women and their families and friends are unaware of their increased risk of pregnancy when they switched to these drugs.

“Usually, information about these kinds of drugs is filtered through the drug industry before it gets to consumers,” said Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “We aim to provide an objective source of information about the risks and benefits of these drugs.”

The site is a joint project of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the legal and practical barriers to the treatment of seriously mentally ill Americans who are not receiving appropriate medical care. Unlike many organizations that create informational Web sites about drugs and health, neither Public Citizen nor the Treatment Advocacy Center accepts money from the pharmaceutical industry.

The total number of individuals in the U.S. with severe depression is generally thought to be about five million, with an additional 3.5 million people who have either schizophrenia or manic-depressive (bipolar) illness. Thus, the total number of people who may use and possibly benefit from drugs for severe psychiatric illnesses is eight to nine million at any given time.

“It has become increasingly difficult for patients, their families and psychiatric practitioners to get accurate information on these medications,” said E. Fuller Torrey, president of the board of the Treatment Advocacy Center.?”Many important adverse effects are not being reported.?This Web site will provide such information without drug company influence.”

The eLetter covers antipsychotic, antidepressant and mood stabilizer medications used to treat schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, severe depression and other disorders. Although basic information on serious mental illness is included, the principal focus is to provide new information about the risks of older drugs and to inform readers about new drugs as they come onto the market.

The eLetter also contains:

    * Detailed information about depression, including its definition, symptoms, the risks of antidepressant drugs and a list of drugs that can cause depression;

    * An index of more than 50 drugs used to treat mental disorders, with information about what conditions they are designed to treat, their adverse effects, how to use the drugs and a list of other drugs that may create dangerous interactions;

    * Information about how to report adverse drug reactions;

    * Ten rules for safer drug use — for example, when seeing a new doctor, bring a bag filled with all the prescription drugs you are taking, and start with a lower dose of a new drug, particularly if you are elderly;

    * An A-to-Z glossary of terms, ranging from bipolar disorder and mania to me-too drugs (those that offer no significant benefit over drugs already on the market).

In addition, the site’s main page features the latest information about safety warnings and newly discovered interactions and adverse reactions.

Public Citizen’s Health Research Group is the health arm of Public Citizen that promotes research-based, system-wide changes in health care policy and provides advice and oversight concerning drugs, medical devices, doctors, hospitals and occupational health. The Health Research Group petitions and testifies before Congress and federal agencies on such issues as the banning or relabeling of drugs, improved safety standards at work sites and safer medical devices.