Misdiagnosed anti-psychotic drug may be killing stressed veterans
Monday, August 30th, 2010 -- 10:50 am
Traumatized vets take potent drug to help them sleep, but questions loom about potential risks
Andrew White returned from a nine-month tour in Iraq beset with signs of
post-traumatic stress disorder: insomnia, nightmares, constant
restlessness. Doctors tried to ease his symptoms using three psychiatric
drugs, including a potent anti-psychotic called Seroquel.
Thousands of soldiers suffering from PTSD have received the same medication over
the last nine years, helping to make Seroquel one of the Veteran Affairs
Department's top drug expenditures and the No. 5 best-selling drug in
Several soldiers and veterans have died while taking the pills, raising concerns among some military families that the
government is not being up front about the drug's risks. They want
Congress to investigate.
On April 27, the Associated Press
reported, "The federal government on Tuesday reached a $520 million
settlement with pharmaceutical manufacturer AstraZeneca, resolving
allegations of illegal marketing of the company's anti-psychotic drug
U.S. Attorney Michael Levy of Philadelphia, where the settlement was filed, said that
the company had "turned patients into guinea pigs in an unsupervised
In White's case, the nightmares persisted. So doctors recommended progressively larger doses of
Seroquel. At one point, the 23-year-old Marine corporal was prescribed
more than 1,600 milligrams per day — more than double the maximum dose
recommended for schizophrenia patients.
A short time later, White died in his sleep.
"He was told if he had trouble sleeping he could take another (Seroquel)
pill," said his father, Stan White, a retired high school principal.
An investigation by the Veterans Affairs Department concluded that White
died from a rare drug interaction. He was also taking an antidepressant
and an anti-anxiety pill, as well as a painkiller for which he did not
have a prescription. Inspectors concluded he received the "standard of
care" for his condition.
It's unclear how many soldiers have died while taking Seroquel, or if the drug definitely contributed to the
deaths. White has confirmed at least a half-dozen deaths among soldiers
on Seroquel, and he believes there may be many others.
Spending for Seroquel by the government's military medical systems has increased
more than sevenfold since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001,
according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the
Freedom of Information Act. That by far outpaces the growth in personnel
who have gone through the system in that time.
Seroquel is approved to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, but it
has not been endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration as a
treatment for insomnia. However, psychiatrists are permitted to
prescribe approved drugs for other uses in a common practice known as
But the drug's potential side effects, including diabetes, weight gain and uncontrollable muscle spasms, have
resulted in thousands of lawsuits. While on Seroquel, White gained 40
pounds and experienced slurred speech, disorientation and tremors — all
known side effects.
Last year, researchers at Vanderbilt University published a study suggesting a new risk: sudden heart failure.
The study in the January 2009 edition of the New England Journal of
Medicine found that there were three cardiac deaths per year for every
1,000 patients taking anti-psychotic drugs like Seroquel. Seroquel's
unique sedative effect sets it apart from others in its class as the top
choice for treating insomnia and anxiety.
AstraZeneca PLC, maker of the drug, said it is reviewing the study. The FDA is conducting its
own review, citing the limited scope of the Vanderbilt study.
According to the Veterans Affairs Department, Seroquel is only prescribed as a
third or fourth option for patients with difficult-to-treat insomnia
stemming from PTSD.
Marine Cpl. Chad Oligschlaeger, 21, was being treated for PTSD when he died in his sleep at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in
May 2008. Oligschlaeger was taking six types of medication, including
Seroquel, to deal with anxiety and nightmares that followed two tours of
duty in Iraq.
The military medical examiner attributed the death to "multiple drug toxicity," indicating that Oligschlaeger, too, died
from a drug interaction. Because of the complex reactions between
various drugs, medical examiners do not attribute such deaths to any one
After consulting with physicians, parents Eric and Julie Oligschlaeger now believe their son died of sudden cardiac arrest
caused by Seroquel.
"Right now, I'm so angry, and I believe someone needs to be held accountable," said Julie Oligschlaeger, of
Austin, Texas. "The protocol absolutely has to change."
The Defense Department's deputy director for force health protection, Dr.
Michael Kilpatrick, said the government has not seen any increase in
dangerous side effects from Seroquel and other drugs.
Physicians interviewed by the AP said they began prescribing Seroquel because it
was the only drug that offered relief from the nightmares and anxiety of
"By accident, some people were giving them Seroquel for anxiety or depression, and the veterans said, 'This is the first time I
have slept six or seven hours straight all night. Please give me more of
that.' And the word spread," said Dr. Henry Nasrallah of the University
of Cincinnati, who has treated PTSD patients for more than 25 years.
Most of the soldiers and veterans seeking treatment for PTSD do so at hospitals run by the VA or the Defense Department.
The VA's spending on Seroquel has increased more than 770 percent since
2001. In that same time frame, the number of patients covered by the VA
increased just 34 percent.
Seroquel has been the VA's second-biggest prescription drug expenditure since 2007, behind the
blood-thinner Plavix. The agency spent $125.4 million last fiscal year
on Seroquel, up from $14.4 million in 2001.
Spending on Seroquel by the Department of Defense, has increased nearly 700 percent since
2001, to $8.6 million last year, according to purchase records.
Nasrallah and others said they use drugs like Seroquel off-label because so few
treatments are approved for PTSD. The FDA has only cleared two drugs for
the condition, the antidepressants Paxil and Zoloft, and they do not
The only published study on use of Seroquel for PTSD-related insomnia involved just 20 patients who were followed for
six weeks at a VA medical center in South Carolina. The study, which
showed moderate improvement in sleep, was funded by AstraZeneca at the
request of VA psychiatrist Dr. Mark Hamner, who has studied the use of
Seroquel for PTSD.
In his written conclusion, published in 2003, Hamner urged caution in interpreting the results because of the study's
small size and short duration.
Hamner is working on larger, federally funded studies of Seroquel. For now, he acknowledges, there is
little published research on the use of the drug for PTSD.
"Clinical judgment is really the best we can use at this time because there isn't
really a good database to facilitate decision-making," said Hamner, who
works at the Ralph H. Johnson Medical Center in Charleston, S.C.
He stressed that VA guidelines require doctors to monitor patients for dangerous side effects with drugs like Seroquel.
The drug, approved in 1997, is AstraZeneca's second-best-selling product,
with U.S. sales of $4.2 billion last year. But that success has been
marred by allegations that the company illegally marketed the drug and
minimized its risks. AstraZeneca agreed to pay $520 million in April to
settle federal allegations that its salespeople pitched Seroquel for
numerous off-label uses, including insomnia.
Pharmaceutical companies are prohibited from marketing drugs for unapproved uses.
AstraZeneca also faces an estimated 10,000 product liability lawsuits,
most alleging that Seroquel caused diabetes.
Since White died, his family has been searching for an explanation — and for a way to prevent other deaths.
"We trusted the knowledge of the physicians, that they weren't going to do
any harm," White's father said. "And we also trusted the drug companies
because that's who provides the research for the physicians. That's what
our battle is now: trying to get changes made."
Source: AP News