Thursday, July 11, 2002

Risky business

Why were so many on HRT?

        Hello? My fellow women? Are you out there? Or are you on the phone with your doctor? Are you belatedly reading the label on your Prempro? Are you cursing hormone shills Patti LaBelle and Lauren Hutton?

        Maybe you're feeling guilty, a condition that seems to travel on the X chromosome. Did you ask enough questions? Did you trust the right people?

        An estimated 8 million American women were taking hormone replacement drugs at the beginning of this week. Then on Tuesday, government researchers announced that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) increases a woman's risk for heart attack, stroke, breast cancer and blood clots. It is not known how many women are on Prempro today, but 16,000 women in the National Institutes of Health study were told to stop taking it.

        Wall Street thinks this is serious.

Stock swoons

        Stock in the drug's maker plunged. Wyeth, those fabulous folks who gave us fen-phen, lost more than $15 billion in market value the next day. As most of us know from bitter experience, market value is not real anyway. But heart attacks are real. So are insomnia, hot flashes and broken hips.

        That's why so many of us were taking these drugs. This was not some girly botox party. The millions of women on HRT therapy were not drugging themselves smooth or slim. Working women who might have shrugged off a hot flash at home found it considerably more personal and embarrassing during a board meeting or a sales call.

        Besides, our doctors told us these drugs were good for our hearts and our bones.

        Then came the NIH Women's Health Initiative, the largest study of women's health ever conducted in the United States. And it's not all hormones.

        Dr. Margery Gass, the University of Cincinnati's principal investigator for Women's Health Initiative (WHI), says they're studying calcium, vitamin D, memory and cognitive function, diet and benign breast disease.

Literal lifesavers

        “Thanks to all the women who have participated in the study, we finally are getting some good, hard data,” she said. And she expects to get more. The WHI, established in 1991, is funded for 15 years.

        “There's a lot of altruism, a lot of commitment in a study like this,” she said, adding that she hopes participants will hang in there for the rest of the testing.

        “There was a picture on the cover of a national magazine,” she said, “showing a woman as a guinea pig. I hated to see that. They are, quite literally, lifesavers.” As are the women who signed up for the Tamoxifen and breast implant studies. And maybe their risk will result in better conversations between women and their doctors.

        It certainly will result in spirited conversations between brokers and clients. Analyst Mark Hesse-Withbroe told Bloomberg News his firm, Victory Capital Management, is still bullish on Wyeth.

        “There are no serious alternatives to treat menopausal symptoms,” he said dismissively.

        Maybe. But nobody can really tell us for sure. Not without our help.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.



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