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Viagra on Trial: Good for Sex but Bad for the Heart?

Russell Lee had been married 31 years when he decided his sex life could use a "boost." His doctor prescribed Viagra. He took it just once.

"Shortly after having sex, I felt really strange and couldn't get my breath and started having chest pains," says Lee.

Lee had a heart attack so severe that he'll never be the same. He blames Viagra.

"My prognosis is not very good. It's completely ruined my life."

The maker of Viagra, Pfizer, blames Lee's heart attack on heart disease he didn't know about and his pack-a-day smoking habit.

More than 30 million prescriptions have been written for Viagra, and it's proven safe for most. But there are also thousands of reports of serious heart problems in men who've taken the drug. The question is: Are the problems due to underlying heart disease or Viagra?

Pfizer strengthened the warning on Viagra in 1998--6 months after Lee took it--to reflect the increased risk for "sudden cardiac death."

But it's hard to tell if the new warning has worked. The FDA used to publicly release the number of deaths linked to Viagra, but halted abruptly 3 years ago when that number hit 130. Ask the question today and the FDA won't say what the numbers are.

But last year, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that three other treatments for erectile dysfunction are each linked to no more than a few deaths per million prescriptions. But with Viagra, it's 49 deaths per million, eight times higher than the other three drugs combined.

Pfizer wouldn't talk about Russell Lee, saying "All legal cases should be tried in a courtroom, and not in public." But Pfizer maintains "the cardiovascular safety of Viagra has been thoroughly demonstrated by an extensive body of data."

Lee says it's too late for him, but he's exposing the intimate details of his life for the sake of those who still don't know about what he sees as Viagra's risks.
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