Pills

Diclofenac, the most widely used painkiller in the world, has been proven to carry with it the same risk of having a heart attack as VIoxx, yet it still remains available, reports NPR.

While not the most popular prescription NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) sold in the U.S., brands including Voltaren, Cambia, Cataflam and Zipsor can be found in large numbers elsewhere on the globe, but, reports NPR, “evidence of the drug’s cardiovascular risk hasn’t translated to a reduction in use.”

A recent paper published in the journal PLOS Medicine found that diclofenac outsells ibuprofen, naproxen, and other NSAIDs in at least 15 countries. And the drug “raises the risk of a cardiovascular “event” such as heart attack by about 40 percent, compared to taking no NSAID. Other NSAIDS are much safer, with naproxen being the least risky. Naproxen has a global market share of only 10 percent.”

The deaths are likely in the thousands, says the study author David Henry of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto. For someone with a low risk for a heart attack, diclofenac won’t increase the risk much further, but the same can’t be said for someone with a higher chance of having a heart attack. “[D]iclofenac would boost the risk in those with a 10 percent annual heart attack risk to 14 percent—a substantial increase, especially when multiplied over an entire population taking the popular pills for a wide range of aches and pains.”

To give it scale, NPR uses this example: “For instance, if only 1.3 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people take diclofenac (a plausible assumption, since the drug is the most commonly used NSAID in Chinese hospitals), Henry and his coauthor Patricia McGettigan, of Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, say it could result in 14,000 preventable deaths.”

Merck & Co.’s Vioxx was removed from the U.S. market in 2004 and the diclofenac study authors are petition the World Health Organization to pull the product from the organization’s “essential medicines” list.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Ano Lobb