Patients seeking cancer treatment are being cautioned of an unusual side-effect associated with the cancer drug known as Avastin.
The drug was recently implicated in increasing the risk of developing flesh-eating disease. A public warning was released by Health Canada on Thursday. According to a new safety review from Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., the pharmaceutical company behind the drug, a total of 52 patients developed a serious case of flesh-eating disease after taking Avastin. While 17 of these cases resulted in death, the overall risk appears to be relatively minor, considering the fact that more than a million patients were treated with Avastin during the 15 year span that underwent review. In Canada, the widely prescribed cancer drug has been linked to 2 cases of flesh-eating disease, one of which was fatal. Avastin was introduced to the domestic market in 2005 and is currently used by an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Canadians each year. Still, company spokeswoman Nancy Zorzi reminds the public that the disease appears in less than 0.1 percent of cases, making it a "rare" side-effect of the drug. Indeed, Avastin has been linked to many other more common side-effects, including hypertension, blood clots and gastrointestinal perforation -- a hole in the intestines. But while the side-effects of any new pharmaceutical are a constant worry among doctors and patients alike, when it comes to cancer, they might just be a worthy trade-off. Avastin, also known as bevacizumab, acts to slow the growth of new blood vessels, countering the detrimental increase in blood supply that accompanies most forms of cancer. The drug is generally administered to patients with colorectal cancer, but has also been prescribed for the treatment of brain, lung, and kidney cancers. Nevertheless, the use of Avastin remains controversial. In 2010, NICE, a health watchdog agency based in the U.K., publicly stated that the high price of Avastin is not reflected by its benefits. Indeed, like many other cancer therapies, Avastin is awfully expensive. The drug is estimated to cost over $40,000 in Canada and over $100,000 in the U.S. per patient for just a single year of treatment. That's a hefty amount to pay for a drug that is not aimed at curing cancer, but rather has been found to prolong a patient's life by a few months at most. Yet many continue to assert that Avastin offers a safe and effective treatment for colorectal cancer, which is often a life-claiming disease. Even the risk of flesh-eating disease has yet to deter its strong supporters, including Health Canada. "Health Canada recommends that patients who are taking Avastin continue using the drug and to visit their health-care provider if there are any concerns," a spokesperson for the federal division concluded.
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