W5: Parkinson’s drug sends patients on orgy of gambling, shopping and sex

Constant cramping, unwanted tremors, excruciating pain, and slurred speech: these are the unbearable symptoms many of those living with Parkinson’s disease endure — a debilitating disorder of the brain that affects approximately 100, 000 Canadians. One of them is Raymond Harrison. The 48-year-old former logger from Clearwater, British Columbia, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s while in his early thirties.

In 1999, after suffering worsening conditions, Harrison decided to try a new drug, called Mirapex, recently approved in Canada. The drug was recommended by his doctor and promised Harrison a better life, free from tremors and pain. Mirapex mimics the effects of dopamine — a chemical lacking in the brain of Parkinson’s patients — and helps patients regain control of their movements.

Harrison, a husband and father, is one of thousands of Canadian Parkinson’s patients prescribed Mirapex — or one of its generic versions containing pramipexole. For Harrison, Mirapex held the promise of better health, letting him continue to fish and play baseball with his four active sons.

Instead, Harrison entered a very dark and destructive world of gambling and sex addictions that made him want to end his life only months after first taking Mirapex.

His wife, Jerrie Wilkie, was among the first to notice the changes in her husband.

“He was a lot more short-tempered. He became a lot more selfish. Spending money started to become pretty important to him. He basically started with “scratch ‘n wins”. That was where it all started — the gambling” said Wilkie.

Harrison’s gambling got worse. He soon moved from “scratch ‘n win” lottery tickets to spending hours at casinos and online gambling, losing a total of $200,000.

But Harrison’s compulsive behaviour didn’t stop with gambling and games of chance. Soon after he began taking Mirapex, Harrison also became addicted to pornography. He racked up hundreds of dollars in charges every month ordering pay-per-view pornography on satellite TV.

“It was very expensive. When the bills came in it was anywhere from $250 to $350 a month,” Wilkie explained. “I was always horny all the time and couldn’t do anything about it. Nothing would work and so I had to watch porn,” added Harrison.

Late night absences, gambling debts, and expensive porn TV bills all led to many fights between Harrison and his wife, who was trying to block the pornographic television channels.

Watching his life spiral downward Harrison contemplated suicide.

“[I] ran out of money, so I couldn’t gamble any more. And then I was locked out of porn. My life was coming to an end and I figured I might as well, my quality of life is terrible right now and this isn’t me and I don’t want to be known this way, so I’ll take my own life,” said Harrison.

Then, after almost seven years of taking Mirapex daily, Harrison decided on his own — not knowing that it was the root of his compulsive behaviours — to quit taking the drug. He had had enough of Mirapex. Although no one ever told him, Harrison suspected the drug was causing the radical changes in his behaviour.

“I went out to the pickup and I took the Mirapex and threw it as far as I could throw it,” he said.

Harrison quit cold turkey in 2006 — almost a year before he learned that others had connected Mirapex with impulse control disorders. During withdrawal he says he suffered relentless pain “from head to toe” and rashes for almost a year. At the end, his family says Harrison eventually returned to the man he was before taking Mirapex.

“Raymond wasn’t gambling. He wasn’t talking about gambling. He wasn’t talking about porn any more. It was just a huge relief. He wasn’t wanting to kill himself,” said Wilkie.

Harrison was never told by his doctor, the drug company, or Health Canada that there were problems with the Mirapex. Only after his wife read a magazine article did the couple make the connection between Mirapex and Harrison’s radically and suddenly changed behaviour. Finally his long-suffering family began to understand what was behind Harrison’s compulsive behaviour.

“I was pretty shocked. I had to read it three or four times before it really sunk in, because I didn’t know if it was a joke. It took a while,” said Wilkie.

Boehringer Ingelheim

In the United States, hundreds of Mirapex users have sued Boehringer Ingelheim, the drug maker, for not properly warning patients about the drug’s harmful side effects.

In the first case to go to trial, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the jury awarded Gary Charbonneau, the plaintiff, $8.2-million in July 2008, and found the drug company was negligent for not warning patients about pathological gambling. Since then, the drug company has settled out of court with nearly 300 hundred American Mirapex patients, also represented by the same Minneapolis law firm.

Previously secret clinical trial results were presented as part of the evidence at trial [Charbonneau v. Boehringer Ingelheim] showing that the drug company knew as early as 1995 that Mirapex can cause compulsive behaviour.

While the company settled with Mirapex patients in the United States, there has been no such settlement in Canada. Asked by W5 about the lack of compensation for Canadian patients, Boehringer Ingelheim declined an interview responding that the company “has not and does not comment on litigation pending in the U.S. or Canada.”

In a statement sent to W5 via e-mail, the company insisted that, “Patient health and safety are of the utmost importance to Boehringer Ingelheim and that Pramipexole (the medicinal ingredient in Mirapex)… has a prominent role in the therapy of Parkinson’s disease and has brought significant and meaningful symptoms relief to millions of people living with this disease.”

“Boehringer Ingelheim has fulfilled its regulatory obligations and has met all of its legal and ethical obligations,” the statement went on to say. “Healthcare professionals are advised to inform patients to seek help from their doctor if they, their family, or their care giver notice that their behaviours is unusual.”

The drug maker’s response has angered those who, like Raymond Harrison, have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to compulsive gambling and shopping and sex addictions — along with their dignity. Others have suffered even more, having watched their marriages and families break up.

“Thanks a lot, assholes, for not warning me,” said Harrison. “And they owe me thirteen years of my life.”

Harrison is suing Boehringer Ingelheim, and is involved in a class action lawsuit. According to the lawyers at the legal firm Thomson Rogers, in Toronto, he is among more than 100 Canadians seeking compensation from Boehringer Ingelheim.

Like many Parkinson’s patients who suffered from destructive compulsive behaviour after taking Mirapex, Harrison never received any notice or warning from Health Canada.

Health Canada

W5’s investigation has found that the federal government was alerted to problems with Mirapex as early as 2003. A review of Health Canada adverse drug reaction reports and internal memoranda showed that the federal department knew about the impulse control disorders, such as out of control gambling or sex addiction, associated with Mirapex but issued no public advisory to Canadian patients.

“We certainly never got anything like that. Not a peep, not a word. Not a letter, nothing,” said Harrison.

Approximately one-third of the adverse reaction reports related to Mirapex detailed problems with impulse control disorders.

In November 2004 the Mirapex product monograph, which outlines potential adverse reactions, was modified in Canada to indicate “increased or decreased libido” as a side-effect.

However, correspondence between Health Canada and Boehringer Ingelheim, in May 2005, obtained by W5, indicate that after learning about the pending lawsuits against the drug company in Canada Health Canada officials requested additional changes to the product monograph to include “pathological gambling” as a possible side-effect.

This followed earlier changes to product monograph warnings in the United States.

During a five month period W5 sought interviews with Health Canada officials at the highest levels, to seek information about the department’s actions regarding Mirapex, including the drug’s approval for use in Canada and subsequent warnings regarding its serious side-effects. All of the requests were denied.

Health Canada’s Media Relations office wrote “unfortunately, I do not have an available spokesperson for your request” after W5 asked who, from Health Canada, was available for an interview.

A similar request for an interview with Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq was also refused. Officials in her office cited no reason – just that “the minister is not available to do this interview.”

 

Watch the W5 report.

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At the age of 43, Danny McCoy was rendered a paraplegic after he was involved in an unfortunate car accident. Prior to the accident, he was an avid sailor. After the accident, Danny became one of the top ranked competitive sailors in the world.

- Craig Brown
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