Asthma steroid can kill, health officials admit
By Victoria Macdonald, Health Correspondent (July 1997)

HEALTH officials admit that at least 175 people have died from side-effects while taking steroids prescribed for cancer, arthritis and asthma, according to figures obtained by The Telegraph.

Officials at the Department of Health admit that doctors report only 10 to 15 per cent of "adverse drug reactions" to the Government's Medicines Control Agency. The department has always claimed that there have been no deaths associated with corticosteroids, a commonly-prescribed anti-inflammatory drug.

But following a request from campaigners against the drug, the MCA released figures showing that 83 deaths had been caused by adverse reactions to one form of corticosteroid. A second request to the department for all adverse reactions to corticosteroids revealed a total of 175 deaths between 1964 and 1997.

The drug is taken by tens of thousands of people every year and the Health Department described it as of immeasurable value. But last night the parents of Lexie McConnell, who died in 1992 from chicken pox while being treated for an eye infection, described the figures as "alarming".

Arthur and Victoria McConnell, of Abingdon, Oxfordshire, have campaigned for the drug to be put on a restricted prescribing list. They have also been demanding a public inquiry into Lexie's death, which they say will highlight the dangers of corticosteroids. But this request has been repeatedly turned down by the Government.

Mr McConnell said: "In a situation such as ours, we were never given a warning that there were dangers associated with the drug. We also know that these figures are the tip of the iceberg."

In a recent letter to the junior health minister, Baroness Jay, following the refusal to hold an inquiry, Mr and Mrs McConnell wrote: "We are dismayed and disgusted by this response from the new Department of Health. "It was our understanding that this was a new Government which professed to know the difference between right and wrong. If a child dies as a result of medical treatment at a leading NHS teaching hospital and there is no subsequent public inquiry, what hope is there for the medical profession or the NHS?"

Corticosteroids have been linked to a number of side-effects, including osteoporosis, obesity and diabetes when given in high doses. The drug is also used in asthma inhalers, but is delivered at a lower dose and is thought to be less harmful.

Dr Ronald Mann, director of the Drug Safety Unit, agreed that more publicity was needed over the dangers of contracting chicken pox while taking the drug. "I do not think the message has got through to GPs," he said.

Corticosteroids suppress the immune system, making it more difficult for a patient to fight a disease such as chicken pox. The McConnells have always claimed that they were never warned that Lexie should not come into contact with the infection while she was being treated. Over the past five years they have received support for their call for an inquiry by 150 MPs, including Eric Illsley, a former Labour health spokesman.

Mr Illsley told The Telegraph in 1995 that they had been treated disgracefully "by a system which is supposed to put patients first and protect them".