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A LAWYER’S daughter who attacked a woman with a glass in a nightclub has escaped jail after a judge accepted that her violent behaviour was triggered by the controversial drug Seroxat.
Natalie Houston, 20, said her course of medication had been a living nightmare and that she twice contemplated suicide. She is now suing the drug’s manufacturers.
Houston was convicted of assaulting Hazel Cunningham, 25, from Dunfermline, Fife, at a hearing last month. But a sheriff yesterday spared her from a jail term, on the strength of evidence from Dr David Healy, an expert in antidepressant drugs, who backed her defence.
The case comes after regulators last week banned the prescription of Seroxat to under-18s, following a review which found children taking the anti-depressant may be more likely to harm themselves.
The sales assistant was prescribed the drug two years ago to help her cope with depression caused by the death of her grandmother, the court had been told. Concerned relatives had told Dunfermline Sheriff Court how Houston’s personality changed after she was on the medication.
On 10 February last year, a violent swing in Houston’s mood resulted in assault on Ms Cunningham at the Genesis nightclub in Dunfermline. The victim was left with permanent scarring to her nose.
While the severity of the offence could warrant a prison term, the sheriff, Ian Simpson, said he had been persuaded by Dr Healy’s testimony that Seroxat could have caused the accused to lash out.
The sheriff told Houston: “This is a very serious offence. You caused significant injury to a woman who was a complete stranger to you.
“I would have been in the position of sending you to Cornton Vale, but … the evidence of Dr Healy clearly persuaded the jury that effectively you would not have done this if you had not been taking Seroxat.
“The drug contributed to your actions on the night of the offence, and Dr Healy provided evidence that the behaviour of normally sensible people can become aggressive after taking the drug.”
Mr Simpson added: “There is no doubt this drug has done a great deal of good to a lot of people, otherwise it would not have been prescribed. But people have not been given warnings of possible side-effects. But for the drug you would not be standing here.”
Mr Simpson placed Houston on a year’s probation and ordered her to undergo psychiatric treatment.
Ms Cunningham, a customer account manager with a financial services company, said she was “appalled” at the sentence.
“She should have gone to prison for what she did, but she has got off with a slap on the wrist,” she said.
“She admitted in court that she had two pints of lager and two pints of cider. She even told the police that she goes mad when she drinks cider. She should not even have been drinking while on Seroxat.”
Seroxat, made by GlaxoSmithKline, now outsells Prozac in the UK and is estimated to have been taken by 17 million people around the world since it was first licensed in 1990. However, the warning last week by the Department of Health that it should not be prescribed to under-18-year-olds because it can provoke suicidal thoughts and impulses could be the first sign of a major change to the drug’s licensing conditions.
The warning came from the expert panel appointed last month by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, to review the safety of Seroxat.
This followed a BBC Panorama programme last autumn that highlighted claims that the drug has pushed some people into suicide and caused others withdrawal problems, provoking the biggest response in the programme?s history, with 67,000 calls and 1,400 e-mails.
The expert panel has met twice and is due to meet three to four more times before producing a report that is to be published later this year. If it finds that Seroxat causes similar problems in adults to those already identified in young people, as thousands of users have claimed, it will lead to a serious re-appraisal of the use of Seroxat.
Last autumn, Colin Whitfield, 56, a retired headmaster, locked himself in his garden shed in Wales and cut both his wrists while his daughter was asleep in the house. He left no note and in the days before had given no sign he meant to take his life. He had recently been prescribed Seroxat.
Mr Whitfield’s wife, Kathryn, told Brecon Coroner’s Court that the act was so out of character he could not have been in his right mind and she had “no doubt that it was the drug that caused him to do it”.
The coroner, Geraint Williams, was so alarmed by the case that he wrote to Alan Milburn, then Health Secretary, asking him to hold an inquiry into Seroxat and to consider whether it should be withdrawn from sale in the UK.
Patients tell of side-effects
SEROXAT was hailed as a wonder drug when it was released into the market ten years ago. Millions of people have been helped by it and it has been a huge success story for parent company GlaxoSmithKline.
Seroxat is part of a family of antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) which were introduced to the market in the early 1990s.
They were a replacement for older benzodiazepine drugs such as Valium and Librium – and their selling point was that people would not become physically dependent on them.
Seroxat has been available in the UK for the past 13 years. Approximately four million prescriptions for the drug were issued in the past year.
An estimated 8,000 patients under the age of 18 have been treated with the drug over the past 12 months, despite the fact that it is not licensed for use by this age group . But for some users, it can be an horrific experience with nightmares and suicidal thoughts.
The Maudsley Hospital in London runs a national information service for people taking psychiatric medicines. By far the most common complaint staff deal with is from callers who are having trouble coming off Seroxat.
David Taylor, chief pharmacist at the hospital, said: “If a patient is to stop taking Seroxat suddenly, then usually they would quite soon become quite anxious.
“They may feel very dizzy and unsteady on their feet. Often people experience electric shock sensations.
“They may also have a fever and feel generally unwell, and they also may experience mood changes or very vivid nightmares, for example.”
A World Health Organisation report which ranked antidepressants in order of withdrawal problems found Seroxat was the hardest to come off. And the Seroxat User Group has more than 4,000 members, some of whom are involved in legal action calling for improved patient information.
However, GlaxoSmithKline denies there is a problem. Its packaging information claims that the drug is not addictive, and the firm maintains that Seroxat is a safe and effective drug.