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“RxISK” Database Reports Side Effects, Including Violence, Undisclosed by Pharma Firms


My previous post considered whether an antidepressant might have served as a catalyst for a gunman's massacre of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard last week. Some readers objected to my discussion of this possibility, given the paucity of evidence that psychiatric drugs can trigger violent acts.

RxISK gathers and disseminates data on drug side effects, which manufacturers often fail to disclose.

The problem with this objection is that negative reactions to medications often go unreported, because of the persistent failure of pharmaceutical companies to disclose adverse effects of their products.

This enormous, ongoing meta-scandal has provoked an international group of health-care experts to form RxISK. One of the founders of RxISK is David Healy, a professor of psychiatry and authority on the side effects of psychiatric drugs, who was the primary source for my previous post.

The RxISK website calls it "the first free, independent website where patients, doctors, and pharmacists can research prescription drugs and easily report a drug side effect--identifying problems and possible solutions earlier than is currently happening." The website has pages dedicated to suicide, sexual dysfunction and "violence and extreme acts."

The website adds: "Drug side effects are now a leading cause of death, disability, and illness. Experts estimate that only 1–10% of 'serious' adverse events (those causing hospitalization, disability or death) are ever reported. Not to mention the millions of 'medically mild' adverse drug events that occur each year--ones that compromise a person’s concentration, functioning, judgment and ability to care."

RxISK points out that "most data on prescription drugs is owned by the multinational pharmaceutical companies who run almost all clinical drug trials (60% of which are never reported). They simply are not sharing data that may affect their bottom lines. There is a gap in the data that only patients, doctors and pharmacists can fill."

Unfortunately, pharmaceutical firms are only part of the problem. As the science journalist Charles Seife has reported in Scientific American, government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration--and researchers themselves--often enable drug companies' unethical behavior.

In "How Drug Company Money Is Undermining Science," Seife notes that "neither scientific institutions nor the scientists themselves have shown a willingness to police conflicts of interest in research" involving medications. See these hard-hitting articles by Seife and colleagues here, here and here.

The corruption of modern medicine by the pharmaceutical industry has also been examined in books such as Pharmageddon by Healy, The Truth About the Drug Companies by Marcia Angell, Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre, Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker (which I have written about) and Side Effects by Alison Bass (whose reporting I cited in my recent critique of optogenetics).

I hope that RxISK becomes a go-to source of information for patients and health-care providers. Ideally, the organization will also shame drug companies--and the researchers and institutions working with them--into acting more ethically.

Postscript: For more on links between psychiatric medications and violence, see this 2010 paper in PLOS One, "Prescription Drugs Associated with Reports of Violence Towards Others," and a followup blog post by journalist Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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