Glaxo's guinea pigs

The pharma giant is accused of putting pregnant women at risk in unethical drug trials.


Carol Lloyd
December 7, 2006 8:53PM (UTC)

Pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has been brewing up a whole mess of potions for female trouble lately -- from new HPV vaccines to aspirational anorexia (excuse me, weight loss) drug Alli -- but is turning out to be the kind of friend that should make us watch our collective back. Last week we noted that its popular happy pill Paxil -- which has successfully targeted the depressed, shy chick demographic -- can lead to serious birth defects in the babies of women on the drug. It's bad enough for a pharmaceutical company to keep pushing sales even after evidence begins piling up that the drug has some serious side effects, but this week (tipped by Ethx Blog and mentioned by Tracy Clark-Flory in Broadsheet earlier this week) the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology published a letter by two medical school professors and the Public Citizen Health Research Group that charges the company has run roughshod over women in more insidious ways.

The letter alleges that during a clinical trial between 1998 and 2004 at a hospital mostly serving low-income residents, Glaxo-Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) administered a placebo to dozens of pregnant women with genital herpes simplex virus even though studies had already determined that the drug being studied, valacyclovir, would have helped them. The risk to pregnant women with herpes is that they will have an outbreak during labor, prompting a prophylactic cesarean section to prevent the worst-case scenario: transmission of the potentially fatal virus to the baby. By giving the women in the study placebos, the letter argues, "a significant number" had outbreaks leading to unnecessary cesareans.

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No babies died, no women died. But having lived through two of these "rip and tip guts on a platter" methods of childbirth, the thought of a big pharmaceutical company ignoring the health needs of poor female research subjects is truly sickening. The Public Citizen Health Research Group has also highlighted some further ugly facts, charging that the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have funded numerous clinical trials in developing countries that give HIV-positive pregnant women placebos instead of AZT, a drug that's proved highly effective in reducing transmission to the baby. With purportedly health-focused institutions like these, who needs enemies?


Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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