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Deadly drug reactions are now epidemic

Who would ever imagine that the medicines prescribed to cure disease could be killing more than 100,000 Americans a year?

A new review of data in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that fatal drug reactions may be the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, right behind heart disease, cancer and stroke.

The data are especially discouraging because they don't include deaths stemming from mistakes, which are all too common. They also don't include drug interactions or medicines taken at home, which are also capable of killing people.

If medication errors (wrong drug, wrong dose, wrong combination) are included, together with reactions that occur outside the hospital, it is entirely possible that adverse side effects would be the third leading cause of death.

The cost of caring for drug-induced illness is estimated at more than $136-billion a year. That is more than the bill for heart disease or diabetes.

It is inconceivable to most people that their prescription medicine could be so dangerous. The ads they see on television and in magazines make medicines seem so appealing and beneficial. They assume that the Food and Drug Administration's stamp of approval guarantees safety. But when the FDA allows medications on the market, it acknowledges that most may cause harm and some may even cause death.

Although this new study caught many physicians totally by surprise, it shouldn't have. Over the past 30 years, dozens of studies have suggested that the death toll from adverse drug events is enormous, as readers of this column know.

People are especially vulnerable in the hospital. They are often given multiple medications with very little information about any of them.

Folks who wouldn't dream of swallowing a pill without reading about it first don't have access to their reference books and might not be feeling good enough to read anyway. Drugs can be injected into an IV drip without a patient's knowledge, participation or permission. But even an alert patient might find that a harried nurse has little patience to answer questions about all the pills in that paper cup.

How can people protect themselves from this epidemic? First, it is important to recognize that drugs are saving lives, too. People should never stop taking their medicine without their doctors' supervision. But they should also be well informed about possible side effects, both those that are common and expected, and those that are rare but potentially deadly.

Early warning signs of danger may be overlooked. Unexplained bruising or mouth ulcers could signal serious drug-induced blood disorders. Black stools could indicate a life-threatening intestinal hemorrhage.

We wrote the first People's Pharmacy book more than 20 years ago to protect people from such problems. The most recent edition is just out from St. Martin's Press. Check with your local library or book seller, or call (800) 732-2334 directly to order.

Medications save lives and relieve suffering, but the new research shows that doctors and patients alike need more respect for these double-edged swords.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. They can be reached by e-mail at or in care of the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.