Pharma company Sanofi pulls alcoholism medication from Belgian market

Pharmaceutical producer Sanofi will stop selling Antabuse in Belgium, a drug designed to help alcoholics stop drinking, De Standaard reported on Tuesday. Those who drink alcohol after taking the pill become nauseous and short of breath and sufffer palpitations or headaches.

The withdrawal from the market is related to an unstable supply of the active substance in the pill, disulfiram. The discovery of nitrosamine, a substance that can induce cancer on long-term exposure, in Antabuse also contributed to the withdrawal, De Standaard reports.

"That nitrosamine is harmful with long-term intake has been known for a while, and this is also true for other drugs," says Frieda Matthys, a professor of psychiatry at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel who specialises in addiction. "Besides the lack of stock, economic interests are probably the main reason for the discontinuation."

Due to agreements with the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products (FAMHP), pharma companies cannot raise the price themselves. According to Matthys, the minister of Public Health or the FAMHP must take the initiative to re-market the drug at a higher price.

There are no comparable alternatives that help people not drink alcohol. "Antabuse is by far the best available remedy," says Matthys. "Without it, things would go wrong for some of my patients. The fear of feeling nauseous or bad reduces the urge to drink."

While exact figures on the number of users are not available, Matthys estimates that at least 10,000 Belgians are currently using Antabuse. The lack of stock makes it difficult for pharmacists to make the drug themselves and importing the drug is expensive. The FAMHP told De Standaard that it wants to find a solution, although "they cannot oblige a pharmaceutical company to keep a medicine on the market".




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