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Volume 485: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2008

3. Whether he plans to meet Merck, Sharpe and Dohme to discuss compensation for those affected by Vioxx. (243633)

I have no such plans. The then Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), met representatives of the company on 10 July 2008 and conveyed to them the concerns expressed by Members.

I thank the Minister for his answer. My constituent, Mr. David Jones of Elterwater, is just one of the many hundreds of innocent UK victims who have suffered severe health problems as a result of taking the anti-arthritis drug Vioxx. Following the landmark victory of Les Thomas in last week’s court case in Cambridge and the $4.85 billion settlement already paid to American victims by Merck and Co., will the Government now put pressure on Merck to ensure that all patients whose health has been damaged by Vioxx are given the compensation they deserve?

The hon. Gentleman knows that this is a very complex issue, and I have every sympathy with those UK patients—including his constituent whom he has mentioned—who believe that they have been adversely affected by Vioxx. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I understand that the case he mentioned is not related to the matter concerning cardiovascular disease. It would be inappropriate for Ministers or Government officials to intervene in, or comment on, any current or potential claims for compensation from the company in question in this country, as they are properly for the legal system. However, patients who believe they have a case are not prevented from taking a test case to a court of law.

I wonder where the Minister draws the line on patient responsibility when they may know the potential dangers of a drug but still wish to take it because it is effective. I should declare an interest: I took Vioxx and I found it wonderful. It probably caused an ulcer, but I still agreed with my doctor to continue to take it because of its effectiveness, despite knowing of the risks. It was then withdrawn, so I could no longer do that. Vioxx is not the only such drug; there is also co-proxamol, for example, which has been withdrawn from use, too. It is difficult for people with arthritis or joint pain to find an effective analgesic, because the ones on which they have come to rely have been withdrawn. Nevertheless, many such patients would accept the risks involved in taking those drugs and still take them.

My hon. Friend speaks with great personal experience, and her question illustrates the complexity of these matters. It must, therefore, be right for it to be up to individual patients who believe that they may have been adversely affected in any such circumstance to make their own decisions about claiming for compensation and pursuing that through the legal system. It is certainly not appropriate for the Government to try to bring pressure to bear on an individual company in the circumstances my hon. Friend describes. These must be matters for clinicians and individual drug companies to decide, and it is for the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to make recommendations as appropriate.

The Minister’s predecessor took a rather different view, and four years ago The Lancet concluded that:

“The licensing of Vioxx and its continued use in the face of unambiguous evidence of harm have been public health catastrophes.”

This year, a leading US American journal claimed that Merck had drafted “dozens of research studies” on Vioxx and then got prestigious doctors to put their names to them—there was ghost-writing, in other words—and had misrepresented data. Given that most of the 400-plus victims of Vioxx in this country were NHS patients, is it not incumbent on the Government to intervene in this scandal and demand that Merck treats British victims in exactly the same way as US victims have been treated in the $4.8 billion settlement from which they have benefited?

I understand the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members. My predecessor met a parliamentary delegation on the matter only this July, so representations have been made. I must emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that it is not appropriate for Ministers or for Government to intervene in, or comment on, a potential claim for compensation that might be carried out in this country and that is properly a matter for the legal system to address. I repeat to him that the Government do not have any ability to bring sanctions to bear on the company that he is describing. If patients believe that they have a case, they are not prevented from taking it forward in a court of law in this country.