June 16, 1999, news agencies

Aspirin-like drugs are 15th leading cause of death in U.S.

Aspirin and related drugs kill almost as many people every year as AIDS and are responsible for a silent epidemic, researchers said in an article to be released Thursday.

Ulcers caused by such drugs kill about 16,500 people in the United States each year, they reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. AIDS killed 16,685 people in 1997, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Dr. M. Michael Wolfe of the Boston University School of Medicine, said doctors have known for years that the class of medicines known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, cause ulcers and other stomach problems in a small fraction of patients.

But because the drugs are used so widely about 26 billion over-the-counter tablets are consumed each year the number of deaths caused by the medicines is large, Wolfe said in a statement released through the university.

“We estimate that approximately 16,500 deaths occur annually in the U.S. from ulcer-related complications associated with their use,” he said.

If those deaths were given their own category, Wolfe and his colleagues report, the toxic effects of NSAID drugs “would constitute the 15th most common cause of death in the United States.” NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and the active ingredients in Aleve, Naprox, Voltaren and Indocin.

“This is, in many ways, a silent epidemic, because gastrointestinal complications are not preceded by any warning signs in many >individuals,” Wolfe said.

A new class of drugs known as COX-2 inhibitors are designed to provide pain relief without the dangerous side effects of NSAIDs, but experts say it is not yet clear if they are indeed safer.