Medical cover-up

By Sue Dunlevy

29 july 2002

THOUSANDS of Australians are living in chronic pain after their spines were injected with a dye in an X-ray procedure that was used for 42 years. The Daily Telegraph has documentary proof the Federal Government, state health authorities and doctors sanctioned the use of the dye even though they knew the devastating effects of the chemicals in it. The dye enabled doctors to see the spine more clearly in a type of X-ray called a myelogram and was used between 1945 and 1987. Victims of the dye's effects suffer burning back pain, incontinence, loss of bladder control, visual impairment, seizures and paralysis. Known as adhesive arachnoiditis, the disease is caused by the inflammation and fusion of the nerves and membranes of the spinal cord. The condition can take up to 10 years to develop. Derek Morrison, a sufferer who has spent 10 years researching the dye's use and has organised a national support group for around 3000 Australian sufferers, is demanding an independent inquiry into the use of the chemical. Mr Morrison can't believe the government licensed the chemical for use.

"You've seen the chemical make-up of the substance - it contains benzene, hydrochloric acid and sulphuric acid," he said. "How could they ever think that injecting those chemicals into somebody's back would not be harmful?" Doctors were warned not to spill the chemical on rubber because it destroys it and dissolves polystyrene cups. Sufferers want to know why the Therapeutic Goods Administration the federal body charged with checking the safety of medicines allowed its use when studies from 1945 had linked it to a adhesive arachnoiditis. They also want to know why doctors never warned them. They want to know how many victims there are and help to cope with the disease.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration never tested the oil-based chemical iophendylate known as Myodil and Pantopaque which was injected into people's spines. "It was before the Commonwealth began to evaluate drugs of this class," former federal Family Services Minister Senator Rosemary Crowley told state MP Andrew Refshauge in 1994. Documents supplied by Mr Morrison show that in June 1995 the NSW Health Department's radiology advisory committee stated that "Myodil caused arachnoiditis, can cause chronic, severe and debilitating pain and may rarely progress to cause motor and sensory deficits". But it advised that the benefits of the chemical outweighed the risks. Stanley Fraser's life became agony after he had a myelogram in 1976. Aged 69, he is now dependent on 100mg of morphine a day and his wife has to help him dress and bathe. "I get all this pain, like walking on broken glass, problems with my bladder," he told The Daily Telegraph.

His problems began when, aged 43, he had an X-ray for head and neck injuries caused in a coal mine. He said the dye injected before the X-ray was never removed. Four years later he was in such pain he was forced to leave work an invalid and it has taken him until this year to reach a settlement with the Hunter Area Health Service. Documents supplied by Mr Morrison show that although the drug Pantopaque was supplied in breach of the rules to many hospitals in the 1970s the therapeutic goods branch of the Health Department took no action against the supplier. The Therapeutic Goods Administration now says Pantopaque was used intermittently during the 1960s and 1970s but it was only given general marketing approval in 1979. It was at this point it insisted warnings about arachnoiditis be included in the prescribing information, including that it be removed after the X-ray.

But radiologists say it was not standard practice to remove the dye.

Glaxco Smith Kline, previously Glaxco Wellcome which owns myodil, claims there is "no conclusive evidence that Myodil causes arachnoiditis".

A spokesman said the company sympathises with those people who believe they have suffered as a result of myodil use but it says their original condition or surgery may be the cause of their pain. The company no longer sells the Myodil.

A Prince Henry Hospital radiologist, Professor Palmer, says he performed 1500 myelograms and supervised a similar number from 1966.

He told The Daily Telegraph although he knew Arachnoiditis could be a consequence of the procedure he did not routinely warn his patients about the risk of developing it.

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