June 12, 2006

Study Questions if Drugs Raise Suicide Risk

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A study raises questions about whether newer antidepressant drugs raise the risk of suicide as some studies have suggested by finding that suicide rates have dropped in the United States since the drugs were introduced, researchers said on Monday.

In fact, the use of the new SSRI antidepressants to treat depression has saved more than 30,000 lives, according to the study published in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine.

"Our findings certainly suggest that the introduction of SSRIs has contributed to reduction of suicide rates in the United States," Dr. Julio Licinio of the University of Miami said in a statement.

"However, the findings do not preclude the possibility of increased risk of suicide among small populations of individuals," Licinio added.

Millions of Americans use antidepressants, which include Pfizer Inc.'s Zoloft, GlaxoSmithKline Plc's Paxil and Eli Lilly and Co.'s Prozac.

Prozac, or fluoxetine, was the first SSRI, which stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration introduced "black box warnings" on the most popular SSRIs in 2004 after studies in the United States and Britain suggested the drugs may raise the risk of suicide in children and adults.

"Although the current issue concerning antidepressants and suicidality requires further examination, we believe that many more lives have been saved than lost since the advent of these drugs," the researchers wrote.

Licinio's team studied federal data to show the U.S. suicide rate held steady for 15 years prior to the introduction of Prozac in 1988, then dropped steadily over 14 years as sales of the antidepressant rose. The research team found the strongest effect among women.

Mathematical modeling of probable suicide rates from 1988 to 2002, based on pre-1988 data, suggests 33,600 fewer people have committed suicide since Prozac hit the market, Licinio said.

The actual suicide rates fluctuated between 12.2 and 13.7 suicides per 100,000 people until 1988, and then gradually fell to the lowest 10.4 per 100,000 in 2000, Licinio's team reported.

During that time prescriptions of fluoxetine ballooned from about 2.5 million in 1988 to more than 33 million in 2002.

"Much of the psychiatric community fears that the absence of treatment may prove more harmful to depressed individuals than the effects of the drugs themselves," said Licinio, who did the study while at the University of California Los Angeles.

"Most people who commit suicide suffer from untreated depression."