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Health

Doctors: 'fen-phen' diet drug not a cause for public health panic

pill bottle September 7, 1998
Web posted at: 8:05 p.m. EDT (0005 GMT)

From CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen

(CNN) -- When one half of the diet drug combination "fen-phen" was pulled from pharmacy shelves due to fears of heart valve disease, some feared a public health crisis. But, a year later, doctors say the panic was unwarranted.

For people desperate to lose weight, there is no pill available today that works as well as the popular combination of fenfluramine and phentermine.

But the widespread use of fen-phen ended quickly last September when the Food and Drug Administration banned fenfluramine and another diet drug, dexfenfluramine -- marketed under the name Redux -- after doctors found the drugs could cause heart valve disease.

But a year's worth of study has shown that damage to the public health is apparently limited.

"In a worst-case scenario, you might have seen thousands of cases of people with serious heart valve disease," said Dr. Susan Yanovski of the National Institutes of Health. "Luckily, that does not appear to have happened."

Weight loss doctor Richard Bowen found that nearly one out of four former fen-phen users he studied had leaky heart valves. But none of the patients became ill or needed surgery.

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"We've not been seeing a wave of people with severely damaged heart valves that need to be replaced, so I think people who took fen-phen can take some consolation in that," he said.

But since leaky heart valves could cause problems in the future, Bowen said he supports the decision to pull fenfluramine off pharmacy shelves.

However, there are plenty of doctors who still stand by fen-phen and believe the diet pill combination may deserve a second chance.

Dr. Stephen Phinney at the University of California at Davis said echocardiograms show that his former fen-phen patients are fine.

"It really looked like the drugs got bushwacked," he said.

Some researchers say the drug combination may be safe for short-term use, but it may not help much in a long-term fight against weight gain.

"If you give someone a drug for a few months and you stop the drug, the weight is going to be put back on," Yanovski said. "So even if Redux or fen-phen were found to be safe for short-term use, it wouldn't do people much good."

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