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Serious drug reactions hit record high

WASHINGTON — The number of serious drug reactions and deaths reported to the government shot up in the first three months of this year to set a new record, a health industry watchdog group said Wednesday.

The Food and Drug Administration received nearly 21,000 reports of serious drug reactions, including more than 4,800 deaths, said an analysis of federal data by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, known as ISMP.

Two drugs accounted for a large share of the latest reports. One was heparin, the tainted blood thinner from China that caused an international safety scandal. The other was Chantix, a new kind of anti-smoking drug from Pfizer.

Chantix, which had the most reports of any medication, works directly in a smoker’s brain to ease withdrawal symptoms. It also blocks the pleasurable effects of nicotine if the patient is tempted to light up again. Earlier this year, the FDA warned that Chantix may be linked to psychiatric problems, including suicidal behavior and vivid dreams. Pfizer said Wednesday it stands by Chantix, and that the volume of reports might be linked to publicity about the side effects.

“The FDA is aware of the increasing number of reports, and we take them seriously,” said spokesman Christopher DiFrancesco. But officials are not sure whether reports are up because problems are getting worse, or simply due to greater awareness about drug safety issues.

The watchdog group that prepared the analysis has served hospitals and pharmacists for years as a clearinghouse for information on medication errors. Known as ISMP, the organization is now trying to reach consumers with regular reports on drug safety trends.

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