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New warning after anti-depressant drug deaths climb
By Sarah Womack, Social Affairs Correspondent
(Filed: 20/08/2004)

A fresh warning was sounded yesterday over the anti-depressant Efexor after it emerged that deaths involving the drug were rising at a time when those from other types of anti-depressants were falling or remained static.

It came as official statistics showed that almost 5,000 people died from drug poisoning involving anti-depressants in the past decade. Most were suicides.

Efexor - whose chemical name is venlafaxine - was licensed around nine years and used by about 3,000 adolescents, among others, until last year when a study found it could cause hostility, suicidal ideas and self-harm.

Doctors said it should no longer be prescribed to under-18s.

New figures from the Office for National Statistics show there were 17.6 deaths among users for every million prescriptions written for Efexor and similar types of anti-depressant between 1993 and 2002. This compares with a rate of 4.3 deaths per million prescriptions for anti-depressants such as Prozac.

An ONS spokesman said more commonly prescribed anti-depressants were more toxic "but the difference with venlafaxine is that the death rate is going up."

Asked if the figures on venlafaxine could be taken as a warning signal over prescribing the drug, the spokesman said: "We could interpret it like that, yes."

Robbie Williams, the singer, said a year ago that he took Efexor daily to cope with his life.

"I am happy because of the pills," he said, comparing his depression to being stabbed in the leg, and saying he believed it was hereditary.

Trials have also shown Efexor is effective for post-natal depression.

Other figures yesterday show deaths from certain anti-depressants are 10 times higher than those from other brands.

Its report raises new questions about the efficacy of the drugs, their side-effects and whether doctors are over prescribing so-called "happy pills" to people anxious or stressed rather than suffering severe mental problems.

The number of anti-depressants being prescribed in England alone has risen dramatically over the past 10 years from 10 million to 26 million items per year.

A spokesman for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, manufacturers of venlafaxine, said: "These figures (death per million prescriptions) do not take into account the severity of depression being treated. People on Efexor have often failed on other anti-depressants.

"In Britain, Efexor is often reserved for a second line therapy (which means it is not the first drug of choice) and given to people seriously ill with depression."

13 June 2004: MPs to examine health risks of anti-depressants
23 April 2004: Drug firms 'hid risks to children'

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