Just How Many Americans Did Vioxx Kill?

Just How Many Americans Did Vioxx Kill?

by Bill Sardi by Bill Sardi

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that the annual number of deaths in the U.S. for 2004 dropped by nearly 50,000, the biggest decline in 70 years. Associated Press says the 2 percent decrease "came as a shock to many because the U.S. is aging."

The agency didn’t cite reasons for the changes. “We really don’t know — we can’t pin it down,” said Arialdi Minino, a 41- year-old statistician and lead author of the report (Bloomberg News)

The numbers were led by a decline in heart disease mortality. The age-adjusted mortality rate for heart disease, the leading cause of death, fell 6.4 percent to 217.5 in 2004, the agency said.

The total numbers are preliminary and based upon 90 percent of death records, but are expected to be confirmed in final tabulations. With 2,398,343 deaths recorded for 2004 and 2,448,288 in 2003, a drop of 49,945 was reported in just one year.

“Year-to-year variations need to be treated with caution,” said Wayne Rosamond, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “The decline reflects a combination of treating people better and preventing the disease from happening in the first place,” said Rosamond, who heads the statistics committee of the Dallas-based American Heart Association. (Bloomberg News Service)

Still, there were no drastic changes in cardiac care in 2004. What could explain this dramatic drop in the death rate?

Recall that in April of 2002 the FDA added new warnings to labels of Vioxx about the increased risk of heart attack. After months of negative publicity, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory COX-2 inhibitor drug Vioxx was finally recalled in September of 2004.

Whistleblower Dr. David Graham, in testimony before the US Senate, estimated 88,000 to 139,000 Americans experienced heart attacks as a side effect from the drug, and 30 to 40 percent of these died. That would be an estimated 27,000 to 55,000 preventable deaths attributed to Vioxx.

Vioxx at its peak was being taken by 20 million Americans. In 2003 sales of Vioxx totaled about $2.5 billion. Vioxx prescriptions were 19,959,000 in 2003 and 13,994,000 in 2004, a decline of about 6 million prescriptions (about a 30% drop). (Source: IMS Health)