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‘Jawbone Death’ and the Law: The Latest Fosamax Trial Rolls On

From The Wall Street Journal on November 11, 2010:

If there’s a more horrific-sounding condition than “jawbone death,” please let us know what it is.

On second thought, no, don’t.

The condition, a debilitating jaw deterioration, has taken center stage in a trial in Manhattan over Merck’s drug Fosamax, which thousands have alleged causes the condition. Fosamax is most typically prescribed to older women with thinning bones.

The case is pitting Judith Graves, a 67-year-old retired investigator for the United States Army, against Merck. According to the NYT, her lawyer, Timothy O’Brien recently told the jury that Graves’s jaw deterioration, allegedly caused by Fosamax, had required five surgeries, including one to replace part of her jaw with a bone from her left arm.

The lawsuit is one of a handful early test cases against Merck over Fosamax. Some 1400 other cases wait in the pipeline.

So far, the record is mixed. Merck won an earlier case; but in another, a jury awarded a plaintiff $8 million (an amount later reduced by the judge in the case to $1.5 million.)

In its defense, Merck contends that Graves took other prescriptions — like steroids to treat rheumatoid arthritis — that weakened her immune system, leading to her jaw infection and healing problems, said Venable’s Paul F. Strain, outside counsel for the company.

But according to the NYT story, the trial is providing a glimpse into a larger debate among many doctors and researchers over when (if ever) to prescribe Fosamax and similar bone medications known as oral bisphosphonates.

The problem: the drug have been successful, by most accounts, in reducing fractures over several years in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis.

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