||Domingo 24 de Febrero de 2008
|Ten years on: it's time to count the cost of the Viagra revolution
It was the drug that transformed the sexual landscape. Before Viagra, impotence meant shame and often the collapse of all but the most committed relationships. The discovery of its startling ability to restore men's faded sexual function triggered a social revolution as monumental as that caused by the contraceptive pill.
Today Viagra - launched in America 10 years ago this month - is the world's most ubiquitous medical brand name. Type it into Google and a search throws up more than four million references: 10 times more than Prozac and 20 times as many as Botox, its nearest competitors.
The drug has also spawned its own catalogue of jokes and become a byword for efficacy and impact. Nicole Kidman's nude scene in the play The Blue Room was famously described as 'pure theatrical Viagra', for example, while in the US the Survivor TV series was labelled 'CBS's Viagra', a magic pill that made the network virile.
But just how much of all this publicity is hype? Has the 'wonder pill' really lived up to its promise? Has it been a universal force for good?
From the financial perspective there can be little doubt. To date, nearly 37 million tablets have been prescribed in Britain. In the decade since Viagra first went on sale, more than 30 million men in 120 countries have been prescribed it. In addition, many millions more have bought it illegally on the internet, or taken a few from their mates in bars, for recreational use.
Indeed, the take-off of Viagra was one of the fastest that a new drug has ever seen. Almost immediately after its launch in America, it was being prescribed at the rate of at least 10,000 a day. In Atlanta, urologist Dr John Stripling wrote out 300 prescriptions on the day it became available.
And there is no doubt much of this proliferation has been to the good of men and women, as Dr Graham Jackson, a consultant cardiologist in London and an expert on sexual problems, explained. 'More than 20 per cent of breakdowns of relationships are caused because a man has erectile problems. It can cause agony for a man when he cannot perform as he feels he should. A lot of partners are kind and supportive. A few are cruel. And when you have huge great men crying like babies in your clinic, you get pretty desperate for something that will put their problems to right as soon as possible. Viagra has done that in a great many cases that have come to my clinic, I am glad to say.'
Certainly, the drug has brought joy to many relationships. However, it has also had - in many cases - a destructive impact. 'Now men have a drug to help them get it up and get going, they have also shown a worrying tendency to get up and leave - for younger women,' as one sex counsellor put it.
In the process, Viagra has become the third party in many marriage splits, increasingly cited in celebrity divorce cases including that of the comedian Vic Reeves, the journalist Rod Liddle, veteran DJ Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart and, most recently, Wendy and Johnny Kidd, parents of supermodel Jodie and make-up guru Jemma.
'Older men are more able to perform again, so they're going elsewhere - to younger, greener pastures,' said New York divorce lawyer Raoul Felder, who recently acted for the wife of a 70-year-old man who began cheating on her days after taking Viagra. In Florida's retirement communities, rates of sexually transmitted diseases among elderly men - who have started visiting prostitutes after taking Viagra - are soaring, it emerged recently.
Nor is this phenomenon restricted to the US. 'I have seen an exponential rise in divorce cases sparked by Viagra-fuelled adultery,' said James Stewart, of the London law firm Manches. So widespread and common is the use of Viagra that male clients now talk to him about taking it as openly and willingly as they would admit to taking Disprin for a headache, he added.
'The problem is that Viagra widens the age period in which men can commit adultery and that is the catalyst for most relationship breakdowns. On the other hand, Viagra has saved as many, if not more, marriages than it destroys,' Stewart said.
'If a couple's sex life is bad, then that can give rise to all sorts of other problems. By improving a couple's intimate relationship, Viagra strengthens the marital bond.'
This point was backed by David Ralph, a consultant at the Institute of Urology, University College London. 'Viagra has transformed the lives not only of millions of patients with erectile dysfunction but the lives of their partners as well.'
In addition, media coverage means that after generations of taboo, of refusing to talk about sexual failure, erectile dysfunction has become a subject that can be discussed openly, a point stressed by the author Erica Jong. 'Impotence was the great secret. Now suddenly, you can't go to a dinner party without having people talk about erections.'
This disappearance of sexual reticence has been particularly beneficial for the general health of the population, and is one of the major benefits of the Viagra revolution, say doctors. In making men less afraid to talk about their sexual problems, it is becoming easier to make diagnoses of more serious illnesses, as Ralph pointed out. 'The circulation problems that create erectile dysfunction can also be a sign of vascular blockage and diabetes,' he said.
This point is supported by Jackson, who told The Observer that erectile problems are often the first symptoms of a general failing of a man's blood circulation and that this could go on to trigger heart attacks or other cardiac problems. 'So if men are more willing to come forward, then we can pick them up more speedily. That is why it is important that men don't just take Viagra - or its partner drugs Levitra or Cialis - when they first experience erectile problems but consult their doctors,' he said.
'If they don't tell their GP and just take Viagra to compensate, they will be heading into danger. To be fair to the drug companies involved, however, they have gone to great lengths to make sure these drugs are administered by GPs.'
Nevertheless, the widespread availability of Viagra has posed its own problems, not just for patients suffering circulation problems but for men of all ages who use it as a recreational drug. 'Viagra is spawning a nation of men who are dependent on the drug, particularly young men who develop the expectation that they should be able to just pop a pill and have sex, regardless of how they feel emotionally,' said psychotherapist Paula Hall.
Talk show host Jerry Springer was one of the first to go public with a claim of dependency, while over-use of Viagra was blamed for turning the 66-year-old Earl of Shaftesbury from a kindly old man to someone who stalked the Riviera nightclubs for high-class prostitutes, it was claimed during the trial of his murderers two years ago.
Last year, the Aids Healthcare Foundation launched a lawsuit accusing Pfizer of reckless advertising of Viagra, turning it into a 'party drug' whose use is fuelling the Aids epidemic. There are also concerns about those taking the drug on a non-prescription basis but there is no documented evidence of any major loss of life involving recreational use.
'That is one of the great things about Viagra,' said Jackson. 'It has no really life-threatening side effects.' Professor Roger Kirby, director of the Prostate Centre, London, agreed. 'Nothing much happens if someone without erectile dysfunction takes the drug.'
Indeed, Viagra can even make some illegal drugs safer, he added 'For example, cocaine is a very dangerous drug because it causes coronary arteries to close and can sometimes give you a heart attack,' Kirby explained. 'Viagra has the opposite effect and so can help the cocaine user.'
Such an effect is generally accidental, however. Most clubbers take cocaine-Viagra mixes - known as 'coconut pokes' - to get high while still being able to perform sexually. Protection against heart attacks is not the prime concern here, needless to say.
Nor would it be correct to assume that the drug lacks significant side-effects, as consultant gynaecologist David Glenn has warned. His research indicates that the drug is linked to infertility. 'Viagra has become a widely used recreational drug. It is mixed with cocaine, for example, and is sold in clubs. Our work leaves open the possibility that there could be a cumulative effect from taking Viagra, however, which could pose serious fertility problems in later life.'
Another key issue concerns the idea that a drug that restores sexual ability to a man is sufficient on its own to put a threatened relationship back on track, as Susanna Abse, director of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, pointed out. 'I regularly sit opposite couples who tell me that their problem is caused by his inability to get or to maintain an erection and that they think the answer is so simple,' she said. 'It would seem a straightforward course of Viagra is all that they need. But when I suggest it, they either refuse to try it, or they do try it and it still doesn't work.
'The problem is that erectile dysfunction can become a defence for a couple against having to share sexual intimacy. It can be very frightening when the curtain is whisked away and you are forced to confront that issue.'
In general, however, Viagra has been a success story both for its manufacturer, Pfizer - which has made more than £1bn from the drug, it is estimated - and for users, many of whom have regained lost sexual prowess and have had their marriages and relationships revitalised.
'We've always been waiting for the magic bullet and this is pretty close,' said David Ralph. 'The one, accidental discovery leading to the wonder drug that is Viagra has transformed the lives not only of millions of patients with erectile dysfunction but the lives of their partners and their families too.'
Or as Rafael Wurzel, a US physician, has put it: 'Viagra opened the door to an honest and uninhibited discussion about issues pertaining to sexual dysfunction, for men, for women, and for couples. I think it has been wonderful.'
Others, however, have taken a more jaundiced view of this sexual revolution, of course - as one letter, published by the syndicated Ann Landers problem column in US newspapers, made abundantly and poignantly clear.
'I am 62 years old and the mother of six grown children and I was thrilled when my 64-year-old husband began to slow down about two years ago. So now what happens? A pill called Viagra is invented and the old goat is back in the saddle. I do love my husband but I believe I have earned a rest.
'Besides, these pills cost $10 a piece. Last week he had four.'
Other uses for Viagra
Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in the US found that Viagra administered to patients after a heart attack stopped apoptosis, a condition where heart muscle cells kill themselves in the wake of a heart attack, and helped to restore bloodflow and tissue healing.
Pulmonary arterial hypertension
A condition that affects about 4,000 people in the UK, often women in their 30s and 40s, few sufferers survive beyond three to four years. A Viagra-based drug, sildenafil, under the trade name Revatio, extends the lives of some sufferers by boosting bloodflow to the lungs, reducing the workload on the heart.
Approximately 1 in 1,500 people have Crohn's disease, and the condition affects slightly more women than men. A 2006 study by scientists at UCL found that Crohn's disease may be caused by a failure of the immune response, which suggest that Crohn's sufferers could be helped by Viagra. Tests showed that the drug increased bloodflow around the small intestine.
A condition marked by high blood pressure and headaches, it kills around 10 women and results in the stillbirth of up to 1,000 babies each year in the UK. In 2005, a University of Vermont College of Medicine team found Viagra prevented deaths among foetuses in pregnant rats by relaxing muscles in the artery walls allowing adequate bloodflow.
Viagra could increase a woman's chances of becoming pregnant, where the cause of infertility is the lining of the uterus being too thin to sustain a pregnancy. Tests show the drug increases bloodflow to the uterus and stimulates the growth of cells.
What they say: Celebrities talk it up
Hugh Hefner: 'I don't think I could be living this life without it.'
Bob Dole: The former US presidential candidate and prostate-cancer survivor participated in trials. He was so impressed he became a Pfizer spokesman.
Kim Cattrall: 'All that business about multiple orgasms - it's true. I'm not just having two or three, it's four or five.'
Richard and Judy: Richard Madeley revealed that the couple had once shared a Viagra experience. 'It makes everything last longer. But it's not in any way an aphrodisiac.'
Jack Nicholson: 'I only take Viagra when I'm with more than one.'
Case study 1
'I have never experienced a release like it. Afterwards I cried like a baby'
Harold and Lesley enjoyed a full and happy sex life throughout their 35-year marriage until just after Harold's 58th birthday.
'The first few times I failed to get an erection, I blamed the lateness of the night or the heaviness of the meal I had just eaten. It was only when it began happening more often that it occurred to me to become worried, and then quickly I became seriously worried. To try to hide what was happening, I picked fights with my wife just before we went to bed at night, so she wouldn't want to have sex with me. All that tactic achieved, however, was to make her miserable and confused, and me increasingly desperate and depressed.
'Then one day I was leafing through a magazine at the dentist's and I came across an article on impotence. It was one man's tale. And the tale was so like my own, it was like the clouds had parted right there in the dentist's waiting room and the sun had come out.
'I've never experienced a release like my first time on Viagra. The GP confirmed that the drug would help me, but said I would have to pay for it myself. But, quite frankly, the fact that something could be done made virtually any price a small price to pay. The night I got the drug was the first time Lesley and I had had sex in three years. Afterwards we lay in each others arms and I cried like a baby. I was so relieved. I don't feel less of a man for having to take the drug.'
Case study 2
There's no way I'd take it again'
Amy McGuinness, 24, a call-centre manager, used Viagra with a former partner to celebrate their two-year anniversary.
'I have to say I was massively disappointed and so was my boyfriend. We took the pills away with us on the holiday to Corfu that we'd booked to celebrate our anniversary and kept them to take as the crowning moment of the night of the celebration itself.
'It took about an hour for me to feel anything, and when it started it was just a bit of tingling and slight arousal, but my boyfriend had no effect at all until about eight hours later. Then it became painful for both of us. Overall, it was very far from the enjoyable experience we'd been hoping for. We had taken five pills with us, but ended up dumping the three left after that first night. There's no way I'd consider taking Viagra again.
'I was one of the first of my group of friends to try Viagra. Everyone else was curious but even though I told them I wouldn't use it again their curiosity was too much. My friends' experiences have varied, but a large number of them now use it regularly.'
|| 24/02/2008. The Observer.