Flu season is still here, and Hoffman-LaRoche, the manufacturer of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir) are still running an ad intended to market directly to patients. "Sometimes what we suffer from is bigger than we think. The flu is a big deal, so don't treat it like a little cold. Treat it with Tamiflu."
If you didn't get the message from these ads, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also issued public service announcements urging people to get Tamiflu at the first sign of a sniffle or sneeze.
Between the two, the government recommendations and pharmaceutical ads appear to be having the desired effect, because Americans have been flooding their local emergency rooms and doctor's offices asking for their prescription of Tamiflu.
Emergency physicians tell us their beds and hallways are jammed with people complaining of flu-like symptoms. And for those doctors who might be tempted to tell their patients to go home, take two aspirin, and get back into bed, Roche has been targeting the doctors with another set of marketing messages. In its ads to physicians, the company claimed that Tamiflu cuts hospital admissions by 61 percent and reduces complications such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinusitis by 67 percent. In at least one press release, the company even claimed that the drug reduces flu deaths.
The drug does none of the above. An FDA committee declined to approve Tamiflu in 1999 after finding that Tamiflu had not been shown to reduce pneumonia or mortality. But FDA administrators overruled the expert advisors and approved the drug.