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More shocking to the former Ontario MPP, Health Canada knew of these risks: since approving Prepulsid in 1990, the agency, which approves and monitors prescription drugs through its Therapeutic Products Directorate, had sent four letters to doctors, the last in 1998, warning about serious adverse effects, including heart risks in children, women and infants. S., Young learned, Vanessa might not have been prescribed cisapride. In January 2000, two months before Vanessa died, the FDA issued an advisory alerting doctors of heart attack risks and rewrote label warnings; in April, it announced cisapride would be pulled from the market in July 2000.Health Canada followed suit that May, taking Prepulsid off the market in August.By law, doctors must report unfit drivers, and are paid to do so.Fast-tracking drugs to market is like “air-traffic controllers being told to land planes more quickly,” he says.One notorious exception was the arthritis drug Vioxx, fast-tracked in 1999 despite known risks; it was removed in 2004 amid a flood of lawsuits after at least 55,000 deaths worldwide.According to Lexchin, only 55 prescription drugs have been withdrawn in Canada for safety reasons since 1963 (Health Canada doesn’t keep track of this data).When concerns are raised about prescription drugs, they invariably focus on misuse or abuse: sports doping, Oxy Contin addiction, teenagers taking parents’ pain meds to get high.That more Canadians are harmed or killed by drugs taken as prescribed than by tainted meat, tainted water and handguns combined is not a blip on the public radar.
The Conservative MP for Oakville, Ont., gave the panel an earful. She didn’t drink or smoke or take drugs— with one exception: over the past year, she had periodically taken cisapride, an acid-reflux drug marketed as Prepulsid.
And that figure is likely a gross understatement: it is extrapolated from a 14-year-old study, led by University of Toronto researchers and published in the April 1998 that found deaths linked to prescription drugs accounted for some 106,000 fatalities annually in the U.
S., making it the fourth-leading cause of death, behind cancer, heart disease and stroke.
But this is changing: a growing number of voices are putting the spotlight on the risks of “proper” drug use.
At the Senate committee hearing, Janet Currie, a social worker with the Victoria-based Psychiatric Medication Awareness Group, called prescription-drug side effects “one of the most serious public health problems we have.” Physician David Juurlink, a drug-safety expert and scientist with Toronto-based Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, agrees: “It’s an enormous problem,” he says.