When you entrust your health to a doctor, you might think the two of you are the only parties making crucial calls about your wellness. But the second your doctor takes out a prescription pad, that circle of trust expands to include pharmaceutical companies and regulatory agencies. Unfortunately, as we all know from high-profile recalls in which medications are taken off the market, the pharmaceutical industry sometimes makes mistakes. While all drugs come with risks and benefits, certain products have proven themselves to simply be too dangerous to take, causing avoidable—and irreversible—damage, or even death.
Meanwhile, many drugs with serious side effects remain on the market, or return after a brief recall. It takes a lot for drugs to be pulled from the shelves permanently—but it does happen. Read on to find out about four medications doctors will likely never prescribe again, and to hear the surprising stories of why they're no longer prescribed.
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Vioxx for arthritis
Vioxx is a COX-2 inhibitor that was once commonly used to treat arthritis. But in 2004, the drug's manufacturer, Merck&Co., had it taken off the market when news broke that it had been linked to 88,000 heart attacks between 1999 and 2003—38,000 of which were fatal. By the time it was pulled from the market, it was estimated that over 20 million patients had taken the drug. In 2007, Merck reached a 4.85 billion dollar settlement to resolve thousands of lawsuits—the largest drug settlement in history, according to NPR.
"There is certainly a need for COX-2 inhibitors, but ultimately they were being marketed improperly by pharmaceutical companies to physicians to use higher doses," says William Soliman, PhD, BCMAS, founder and CEO of the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs (ACMA) and a pharmaceutical executive who previously worked with Merck. "In my opinion, this led to some of the cardiovascular risk," Soliman tells Best Life.
Bextra for pain relief
Valdecoxib, branded as Bextra, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that was once prescribed as a pain reliever. However, in 2005, researchers learned that the drug caused serious, and sometimes fatal, cardiovascular complications such as heart attack and stroke. Rarely, Bextra was also found to cause two potentially fatal skin reactions known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome and toxic epidermal necrolysis.
Having determined that Bextra had no particular advantage over similar pain relievers that did not cause such serious complications, the FDA moved to discontinue its use.
Belviq for weight loss
Lorcaserin, branded as Belviq or Belviq XR, was previously prescribed as a weight-loss drug after becoming approved in 2012. However, in 2020 the FDA instructed doctors to stop prescribing lorcaserin after a study revealed a link between the medication and cancer.
"We are taking this action because we believe that the risks of lorcaserin outweigh its benefits based on our completed review of results from a randomized clinical trial assessing safety," the FDA wrote in its recall announcement. "Health care professionals should stop prescribing and dispensing lorcaserin to patients. Contact patients currently taking lorcaserin, inform them of the increased occurrence of cancer seen in the clinical trial, and ask them to stop taking the medicine. Discuss alternative weight-loss medicines or strategies with your patients," the regulatory body advised.
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Raptiva for psoriasis
Efalizumab, branded as Raptiva, was a once-weekly injectable medication used to treat adults with moderate to severe plaque psoriasis. However, in 2009, its producer launched "a voluntary, phased withdrawal of the product from the U.S. market."
That's because scientists learned that the drug had been linked to progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), a rare but serious neurological disease caused by a virus that affects the central nervous system. In its drug withdrawal notice, the FDA noted that there is "no known effective treatment for PML," and while it is unlikely for any individual taking Raptiva to develop the illness, it can ultimately be fatal in those who do contract it.
Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.