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Roaccutane: The horror side effects and success stories of dermatology's ‘wonder drug’

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As far as medications go, there are few so polarising as the acne drug Roaccutane.

The internet is littered with the blogs and vlogs of teenagers praising the drug as a life saver, a game changer that saved them from the hellish torment of cystic acne and finally offered up to them the miracle of clear skin.

Then there are those who describe it as the “worst drug on Earth” after suffering from Roaccutane’s rare but debilitating side effects, some of which can be tragically fatal

The list of side effects for Roaccutane, also known by its former name Accutane or by its generic name isotretinoin, is long. It includes depression, suicidal thoughts, mood alterations, birth defects for pregnant women, nose bleeds, gastrointestinal disorders, hair loss, dry skin and more.

The drug has been linked to five deaths from suicide in the last five years in Australia, according to the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Last month, nine.com.au reported on the case of a Queensland woman who developed acute pancreatitis and ended up in hospital vomiting blood weeks after starting Roaccutane.

Then there are the lawsuits the drug has become notorious for in the US. 

Accutane has been used as a defence in several murder trials, and is set to be used again in the upcoming trial of 15-year-old Colorado boy Aiden von Grabow who is accused of stabbing a woman to death last November. The drug's controversy dates back to 2002, when another 15-year-old boy, Charlie Bishop, took a small plane and crashed it into a skyscraper in Florida.

Bishop's mother filed and later dropped a lawsuit against drug maker Roche, alleging the drug made him suicidal.

Actor James Marshall, known for his role in the TV show Twin Peaks and A Few Good Men famously tried to sue Roche for $12 million after alleging it caused bowel problems leading to the removal of his large intestine. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed after a judge ruled his bowel problems were pre-existing.

However, where Marshall failed - several succeeded.

After losing millions of dollars in damages to former Accutane users over inflammatory bowel disease claims, Roche eventually pulled Accutane from the market in 2009 and the drug is now available in the US only in its many generic forms.

In Australia, use of the drug is increasing – 205,000 prescriptions were issued for isotretinoin in Australia in 2016-2017, up from 175,000 five years ago.

With the drug being on the market for almost three decades, many dermatologists believe it is still the closest cure we have for acne.

“Isotretinoin is probably the wonder drug of dermatology over the last 20-30 years because these days with it, there is almost no excuse for teenagers or young adults to have bad acne,” Sydney dermatologist Dr Stephen Shumack told nine.com.au.

The most serious side effects of the drug which has captured media headlines, such as depression and gastrointestinal issues were rare, he said, with the most common problems being dry skin and sensitivity to sunlight.

Roaccutane is only available from dermatologists, and use of the medication is considered a last resort option once all other options for acne have failed.

However, this is small comfort for Queensland mother Tracey Campbell whose son had his large intestine removed last year because of bowel problems she claims were caused by the drug.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy”

Mrs Campbell’s now 21-year-old son took one of the generic versions of Roaccutane, called Oratane, for six months when he was 13.

“His acne wasn’t as bad as some people but we wanted to get onto it before it became a problem. We were sent to a dermatologist who put him straight on that,” Ms Campbell said.

“We were told of some side effects, that you could suffer from dry eyes and mouth and were more susceptible of sun burn and to keep an eye on his moods as it could possibly make him depressed.” 

No mention was made of bowel problems, Mrs Campbell said.

But a few months after her son finished taking the medication, he developed the first symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as ulcerative colitis.

“He was in so much pain. You get abdominal pain, with ulcerative colitis, you have bleeding from the back passage, it’s horrific, it really is,” Mrs Campbell said.

“It affects you in a lot of ways. He was getting infusions every six weeks for two-and-a-half years. This has affected his whole lifestyle. 

“He had his whole large intestine removed in November last year because he’s not responding to his infusions anymore. He has an ileostomy bag now, which is where his motions go into from his small intestine.”

Mrs Campbell said he only connected her son’s condition to his acne medication after his gastroenterologist mentioned the drug Roaccutane had been linked to the inflammatory bowel disease.

“I did some research and that’s when the penny dropped. If it wasn’t for that gastroenterologist mentioning that, I would have been none the wiser,” she said.

Mrs Campbell said she still felt angry about how the drug had stolen her son’s health.

“If people could see or live in the shoes of someone like my son who has had this life-altering problem, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. To see your son lying in agony from pain it’s terrible, it really is. 

“There would be I’m sure other treatments for acne that they could look at it because it’s not worth a lifetime of suffering. It really isn’t.”

The drug Roaccutane has been linked to five deaths by suicide in the past five years. The drug Roaccutane has been linked to five deaths by suicide in the past five years.

Mrs Campbell said she had looked into the possibility of suing Roche, but was told by a solicitor that her son “wasn’t maimed enough” and that Roche was such a big company that “they would bury her”.

Inflammatory bowel disease is listed as a possible side effect in the Australian Product Information for Roaccutane (Isotretinoin) supplied by Roche. The drug is also listed as being associated with inflammatory bowel disease by the makers of Oratane – Douglas Pharmaceuticals. 

“It was literally my year from hell”

Todd Blenman, from the NSW Central Coast, has vivid memories of nine months he spent on Roaccutane as a 15-year-old. 

“I remember everything that happened for me while I was on it. I personally would not want to prescribe this to anyone as this was literally the year from hell,” the now 32-year-old said.

Soon after starting the drug, Mr Blenman said he noticed the first of several severe side effects he would suffer through.

“The first notable side effect was constant nose bleeds. From never having nosebleeds in my life to having them at least 3-4 times a week,” he said.

“The second was the constant aching. I would have to lie perfectly still in bed just to try and stop the aching. It was like every joint in my body was on fire.”

“And the third notable side effect was the depression. As if 15-year-old kids didn’t have enough to worry about, I turned from a happy go lucky kid to sometimes not wanting to leave my room and also having suicidal thoughts.”

more at 9news.com.au


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  • 1 month later...

I was prescribed Roaccutane when I was in my early 30s. I'd had dreadful acne since I hit puberty and it did clear my skin for a couple of years - but the acne did come back, but not as severe. It only really started to clear up properly when I hit my mid-late 40s and these days I have beautiful clear skin. One lovely side effect of having horrible oily skin is that I have less wrinkles and look years younger than I actually am. As to whether Roaccutane can trigger depression - I'm not sure. I had a bout of severe depression and anxiety in my mid-30s (a year or two after using the drug) and again four years ago. I can't confirm the link to Roaccutane or whether it was the horrible ***** happening in my life over the years. 

Not much help in this discussion - but my personal experience of using the drug. Oh and the side effects whilst on it can be full-on but bearable.

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