Viagra Craze

In December, 1994, Lorne had just turned 40 and life was good. Married, he had two young children, a house near Vancouver and a job he enjoyed. Then disaster struck: as he changed a tire on his car beside a roadway, another automobile hit him.

Viagra Craze

In December, 1994, Lorne had just turned 40 and life was good. Married, he had two young children, a house near Vancouver and a job he enjoyed. Then disaster struck: as he changed a tire on his car beside a roadway, another automobile hit him. Though Lorne can walk and is about to go back to work, the accident damaged spinal nerves and left him with enduring problems, including numbness in some parts of his body and distressing limits on his sex life due to difficulties having and maintaining erections. "It was depressing," he recalls, "when my wife was in the mood for sex and I just wasn't interested." Doctors suggested remedies involving pumps and injections, but Lorne was not interested in them. Then, he had the opportunity to take part in clinical trials for a new drug called Viagra that is designed to deal with problems like his. In December, 1996, Lorne began popping a sky-blue tablet whenever sex was in the offing. Once again, his life was transformed. "Sex is as good as it used to be - maybe even a little better," he says. "This medication is just fantastic."

Thousands of American men appear to agree. Since Viagra was approved for sale in the United States early in April, demand has soared to the point that physicians are scribbling an estimated 40,000 prescriptions a day. Manufactured by New York City-based Pfizer Inc., Viagra - which has yet to be cleared for general use in Canada - can apparently restore virility in about 80 per cent of men who have problems, with only minor side-effects including headaches and indigestion. "This isn't just another drug, it's the drug - the magic bullet we've been waiting for," says Dr. Sidney Radomski, a urologist at The Toronto Hospital, one of 27 Canadian centres that took part in the clinical testing of Viagra. "It's going to revolutionize the treatment of impotence."

Pfizer developed Viagra after researchers testing a drug for angina found that it triggered erections in men. Now, it seems destined to largely replace existing treatments which - though effective - cause many men to recoil in horror. The most popular method requires a man who expects to have sex to use a needle to inject an erection-causing drug into the side of his penis. Another involves using a vacuum pump to draw blood into the penis to create an erection, then placing rubber bands around the base of the organ to keep it erect. "It was such a performance," says one middle-aged Viagra user, who lives near Washington. Those methods, he adds, "undermined erotic moments by taking the spontaneity out of sex."

Unlike older treatments, which can leave men with erections that last for hours if sex does not occur, Viagra only becomes effective when a man is sexually aroused. The drug works by blocking the operation of an enzyme that normally breaks down a chemical - cyclic GMP - that plays a key role in maintaining erections. Even though Viagra-assisted erections subside after intercourse, some men report that the drug can remain effective for up to 24 hours. "It means that when they have a sexual thought during the day, they feel a physical response," says Dr. Rosemary Basson, a sexual medicine specialist at The Vancouver Hospital, who has prescribed the drug to 20 men as part of a long-term study. "That says, OK, you're a man again. It's tremendously important to them."

At the same time, U.S. doctors say some men who do not have potency problems are using the drug to enhance their sexual performance. There is no evidence that Viagra increases sex drive or staying power, and at $14.50 per tablet, cost is a factor. Still, Dr. Arthur Barnett, a urologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, expects men will experiment with the drug "to see if it will give them super erections or an increased number of erections over a limited period."

While experts estimate that about three million Canadians, including perhaps half of all men over 65, have potency problems, many doctors say the real number is unknown because so many males are unwilling to discuss the issue, even with their doctors. That may be changing. "Some patients who never told me they had a problem are asking about Viagra," says Toronto physician James Brooks. "Now that they think they won't have to mess around with pumps or needles, they're coming out of the closet."

For all its early promise, experts caution that Viagra's long-term effects are not yet known. Moreover, the drug will not be a panacea for every man who suffers from penile dysfunction - the medical term that covers a wide range of potency problems. Some men, including diabetics and those with diseases that cause serious neurological or tissue damage, will remain difficult to treat, says Kingston, Ont., urologist Jeremy Heaton. But for those who experience physical arousal but still have performance problems, says Heaton, "Viagra is going to be just great" - a judgment that Lorne and other early users of the drug wholeheartedly endorse.

Maclean's May 4, 1998