Panic over 'miracle' pill grips French slimmers
French women, envied for their svelte figures, are furious at a health scandal linked to 2,000 deaths, writes Aoife Drew
ONCE the festive season calms down, the focus will be on shifting a few pounds. However, this year, the 'French Women Don't Get Fat' style books might not be such a success.
Why? Because, as many have long suspected, French women haven't always relied on portion control, eating only high-quality foods or running up and down the steps of the metro to stay slim. In fact, a lot of French people have been depending on something more pharmaceutical, with catastrophic results.
France is recognised worldwide as a leader in healthcare. Standards are high and people take their doctors and drugs very seriously. But this hasn't prevented the biggest French healthcare scandal of the decade. The amphetamine-based drug Mediator was for 30 years a 'mother's little helper', prescribed regularly not only to overweight diabetes sufferers but also as a weight loss drug to healthy men and women, which acted as an appetite suppressant.
Now, French government health officials have warned it may have killed hundreds and offered no benefit to takers of the drug. Mediator has been linked to the deaths of up to 2,000 people and heart problems in 3,500. Along with thickening heart valves, other side-effects include fatigue, breathlessness and difficulty carrying out everyday tasks.
Between its launch in 1976 and a ban on it in 2009, the pill was taken by more than five million French people (a huge figure when you consider that the population of the country is approximately 60 million). The drug was even subsidised by the social security system, which meant that these pills cost very little to consumers in financial terms -- although the cost to their quality of life has been immeasurable.
As far back as 1999, a case of severe heart valve damage in a Marseille patient using the drug was reported to authorities, followed by other cases across France. Spain and Italy banned Mediator in 2005 over health fears. It was never allowed to be sold in Ireland, the UK or the US. And yet, in France, the drug stayed on the market until late last year.
The French health secretary, Xavier Bertrand, recently announced: "Our message to all those who took Mediator is that they must see a doctor -- particularly those who took it for three months over the past four years."
His statement has sparked panic among many ordinary people. Thousands of women have written to French Elle magazine with their stories and a dedicated web forum has been set up.
On the website, one 35-year-old woman said that in 2007, both her GP and a dietician whom she consulted recommended she take Mediator to help lose weight. The course of the treatment was due to run for two years.
From the start, it was very efficient, even with no changes to her diet or lifestyle. She lost almost two stone in six months, which spurred her to keep taking it. But then, the pounds came creeping back, so she stopped taking the pills in 2009.
In early 2010, she started to get terrible heart pains. She describes the feeling as like being stabbed. She went back to her doctor who had since been briefed on the dangers of Mediator and he informed her about the problems associated with the drug. He said that he would not have recommended it had he been aware of the risks at the time. But now it's too late -- the heart pains are continuing.
She blames the pharmaceutical company, Servier, as do countless other people suffering the same symptoms.
Ironically, just before the pill was banned, President Nicolas Sarkozy awarded Servier's founder, Dr Jacques Servier, the Legion d'Honneur, which is the highest French decoration.
Opposition politicians are accusing the government of being too close to the pharmaceutical industry and risking lives to protect profits.
And now lawyers countrywide are set to sue Servier for criminal negligence and involuntary murder.
In response to the crisis, the French government is now set to conduct a review as to why the product was kept on the market so long, and last week Sarkozy said the public deserves no less than "total transparency".
In any case, is there really such a thing as safe diet pills? Everyone wants a miracle cure, but it seems the only prudent way to lose weight is to cut down on the pies and get moving. Of course, that's easier said than done. But be careful what you wish for. Perhaps it's time people gave up envying French women and their svelte figures.