Was the US drug Vioxx responsible for far more deaths than has been acknowledged so far?
ARE American lives cheaper than those of the Chinese? It's a question raised by Ron Unz, publisher of The American Conservative, who has produced a compelling comparison between the way the Chinese dealt with one of their drug scandals – melamine in baby formula - and how the US handled the Vioxx aspirin-substitute disaster.
The Chinese scandal surfaced in 2008, shortly before the Beijing Olympics. Crooked dairymen diluted their milk products, then added a plastic chemical compound called melamine to raise the apparent protein content back to normal levels. Nearly 300,000 babies across China suffered urinary problems, with many hundreds requiring lengthy hospitalisation for kidney stones. Six died.
Long prison sentences were handed down and a couple of the guiltiest culprits were tried and executed for their role. Throughout these events, American media coverage was extensive, with appropriate sneering about the Chinese leadership's indifference to human life.
Four years earlier, in September 2004, Merck, one of America's largest pharmaceutical companies, issued a sudden recall of Vioxx, its anti-pain medication widely used to treat arthritis-related ailments.
The recall came just days after Merck discovered that a top medical journal was about to publish a study by an FDA (Food and Drug Administration) investigator indicating that the drug in question greatly increased the risk of fatal heart attacks and strokes and had probably been responsible for at least 55,000 American deaths during the five years it had been on the market.
It soon turned out Merck had known of potential lethal side effects even before launching Vioxx in 1999, but had brushed all such disturbing tests under the rug