Technology & Science

Cut ties between Health Canada, drug companies, grieving MP urges

A federal Conservative MP whose 15-year-old daughter collapsed and died after taking a prescription medication will introduce a private member's motion calling for an arm's length drug safety agency this week.

A federal Conservative MP whose 15-year-old daughter collapsed and died after taking a prescription medication will this week introduce a private member's motion calling for an arm's length drug safety agency.

Vanessa Young died in a hospital in Hamilton, Ont., in March 2000. Her father, Oakville MP Terence Young, believes a medication called Prepulsid or cisapride prescribed by their family doctor contributed to her death. 

"She jumped up to go upstairs and fell down in front of me," Young recalled on CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Monday. "Her heart stopped dead."

At the hospital, doctors repeatedly asked the family who prescribed the drug. It was given to Vanessa to treat her mild form of bulimia, which sometimes caused her to feel bloated after eating.

As one of the doctors left the hospital the next day after Vanessa died, Young asked the doctor about the drug. The doctor's response — "Well, they dish it out like water" — led Young to start investigating adverse drug reactions. 

Adverse reactions cause 10,000 deaths a year in Canadian hospitals when drugs are used as prescribed, Young said. Probably another 10,000 deaths occur outside of hospitals from prescribing errors and adverse reactions, he added, noting less than one per cent of reactions get reported.

'Pray that I'm persuasive'

"It's kind of a dream for me to be in the Parliament of Canada because those of us who worked on prescription drug safety for such a long time, we were in the wilderness," said Young, who is also the author of a new book called Death By Prescription.

"I can go directly to the decision-makers and I pray that I'm persuasive."

Young is seeking an independent drug agency that gets no money from the pharmaceutical industry and is focused on keeping Canadians safe when using prescription drugs. It would be similar to the Transportation Safety Board.

Young outlined several issues he has with drug safety in Canada, including:

  • Official prescribing information documents for doctors that run to 50 pages of fine print, leading many physicians to rely on drug sales representatives for their information.
  • Changes in Health Canada's mandate dating to 1997 that ordered the department to partner with pharmaceutical companies to help them market their drugs.
  • A lack of independent checks into the safety of prescribed drugs.
  • Pressure on Health Canada's drug reviewers to get drugs to market faster, since pharmaceutical companies pay for 60 per cent of drug reviewers.
  • Pharmaceutical company safety information is considered a commercial secret by Health Canada, as opposed to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that makes the information available on the internet.

Health Canada reviewers "view themselves as helping the companies sell drugs, which in many cases is the antithesis of public health," Young said.

Also Monday, pharmaceutical industry critic Dr. Joel Lexchin said Health Canada's approach to drug regulation puts too much emphasis on speeding up drug approvals and not enough on checking the safety of drugs already on the market.

Lexchin, who teaches at Toronto's York University, said Health Canada can't make a drug company recall medications from store shelves or compel a company to change safety labels on approved drugs. 

Health Canada said Lexchin's critique doesn't take into account the department's recent efforts to track drug safety after a product has been approved.

The regulator has the authority to withdraw a drug's licence, which means companies generally comply with requests to change drug labelling, said Dr. Marc Berthiaume, director of Health Canada's marketed pharmaceuticals and medical devices bureau.

Last year, Health Canada told CBC News that its mandate is to bring additional safety information to the prescriber, but the way doctors handle that information is part of their professional autonomy.

Prepulsid was pulled from the market in Canada in August 2000.

With files from The Canadian Press