UK Government bans aspirin for under-16s

Aspirin is to be banned for children under 16 to minimise the risk of young people contracting a rare disease that can cause seizures, coma and death. Makers of 140 products including brands such as Alka- Seltzer, Anadin, Aspro, Beechams Powders and Disprin as well as supermarket own-label alternatives will have to display warnings under rules being introduced by the government's medicines control agency.

It has decided on a complete ban rather than new controls over aspirin's use because they feared these would have been confusing. Safety advisers hope that stores and manufacturers will start warning families through changes in packaging and leaflet information on counters almost immediately, and in time for the flu season, although the legal process of introducing the ban will not be complete until next March.

The independent committee on safety of medicines (CSM) warned this year that aspirin, banned for children under 12 since 1986, should be avoided by children between the ages of 13 and 15 if feverish. But it has now strengthened the precautionary measures against Reye's Syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that affects the brain and liver. Its causes are unknown but a link with aspirin has been established for 50 years following identification of the condition by an Australian pathologist.

Committee chairman Alasdair Breckenridge said: "The risk of Reye's Syndrome in 13 to 15s is very small but there have been concerns that earlier advice was too complex for products that are available on general sale, requiring a diagnosis of fever by a parent or minor. "There are plenty of analgesic products containing paracetemol and ibuprofen for this age group not associated with Reye's Syndrome. There is no need to expose those under 16 to the risk, however small."

No one knows exactly how many adolescents take aspirin, although advisers presume that the number is relatively small. On the other hand, aspirin, discovered over a century ago, is stored in millions of homes. The cheap painkiller and reducer of inflammation is also increasingly widely used as a blood thinner to protect against heart disease, although it is not recommended for use by pregnant women.

The CSM has been reviewing safety measures ever since the ban for under-12s was introduced. That helped reduce incidence of Reye's Syndrome which is particularly virulent in under-fives. Seventeen cases have been associated with the use of aspirin since 1986. Of these seven were in children under 12. The latest known case was that of a 13-year-old girl who died this year.

Professor Breckenridge said the measures were "sensible and non-nannyish"... "I want to be very clear there is no cause for panic but I also want to ensure that parents and children alike are kept well informed and are aware of the importance of this warning. Anyone who has any questions should talk to a pharmacist."

Some children with other rare conditions, including inflammation of the blood vessels and juvenile arthritis, will continue to take aspirin on medical advice.

James Meikle, health correspondent
Wednesday October 23, 2002, The Guardian