Health & Fitness: Viracept, Prostate Cancer

News & Notes health guru Dr. Ivan Walks talks about at the recall of the AIDS drug Viracept, potential progress in Alzheimer's research and prostate cancer awareness.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From California inmates making health news to a major recall of an AIDS drug that could hit Africa especially hard. Plus, why every day should be Prostate Cancer Awareness Day, and possible progress on Alzheimer's Disease. Back to help us sort these all out, NEWS & NOTES' Dr. Ivan Walks.

Doctor, you're here in the studio. It's great to see you face to face.

Dr. IVAN WALKS (CEO, Ivan Walks and Associates): I'm here on your birthday. Happy birthday.

CHIDEYA: Thank you.

Dr. WALKS: It's good to be here.

CHIDEYA: Thank you so much. Well, let's start things off with a headline making waves in Africa. The AIDS drug Viracept has been recalled by its Swiss manufacturer. They found traces of a dangerous chemical in several batches. Now, this doesn't affect folks in the U.S. There is a parallel drug made by a different company. Viracept is being offered at discounted prices to tens of thousands of patients in the developing world. Does this really undermine efforts to fight AIDS in developing countries?

Dr. WALKS: I think the thing that is most troubling to me about this story is the confusion around the recall. Part of the story says it's not that - it's a low-risk problem and part of the story says there are high levels of this impurity. And then people from all over the world are saying we're not going to get information that's not clear.

So it really undermines the providers being able to confidently say to the folks they are treating, this is a good medication. Take this and you'll get better.

And that whole bond between provider and patient is where I'm really concerned here. People need to trust their health care providers and those folks need to trust the tools that they are using to keep people healthy.

CHIDEYA: This, again, was being offered at a discounted price. If people can't use Viracept or choose not to, are they going to face higher prices for the drugs they need?

Dr. WALKS: Well, one of the most troubling things about this is that the people who have been using this medication in many places around the world really can't afford anything else, and so - and you've also had governments buying the medication so people can get it at no cost.

So with budgets being fixed, you can't afford to buy something that's now more expensive. The people can't now - basically have nothing and one of the things in this article it talks about is how people now have no treatment or have to choose between treatment and spending money, and because it's marketed to these folks that don't have money anyway, that's just not an option. They just will not have treatment unless something else is, in fact, provided.

CHIDEYA: Well, we're going to keep following this story. But I want to take you to Alzheimer's. You may remember that last spring, we brought you the heartbreaking story of Almetia Gram. She was a 59-year-old Atlanta mother who lost several members of her family to Alzheimer's before she herself was diagnosed.

(Soundbite of archived NPR recording)

Ms. ALMETIA GRAM (Alzheimer's Patient): I was always a sort of fast thinker but I couldn't think - I will put my hand on something and I could not figure out what it was that I was doing. It was determined that I had it as well. I can't go anywhere and just come back. I have to make pinpoints, challenge myself to realize where I am and where I got to go. And even after challenging myself sometimes, I still get lost. I guess it's just part of the disease.

CHIDEYA: So obviously, a lot of effect there. But there might be help for Almetia and other sufferers. Researchers in Scotland announced a breakthrough. They say they're developing a compound capable of stopping, even reversing the deterioration of brain cells. How big is this discovery?

Dr. WALKS: Well, it would be huge. If this was available for people, it would be huge. When you look at the article, they say they're using a living model. When they say that, it means it's not humans yet that they're testing this on. So we're probably some distance away from that sort of a breakthrough but absolutely this would be huge.

CHIDEYA: Tell us about some of advances in diagnoses?

Dr. WALKS: Well, there are a lot of things happening and it used to be, when I went to medical school a hundred years ago, they taught us that Alzheimer's was a diagnosis you make at autopsy. And after you rule everything else out, then you say it probably is. We've gone light years from that.

We are - we're looking at folks being able to come into the doctor and say, you know, my memory, I don't think is as good as it used to be, and we have new tests we can give in a matter of five to 10 minutes that can help diagnose something called minimal cognitive impairment. And if you have that minimal impairment, what it does tells us now is about half of the people who have that today, within five years, they may develop Alzheimer's disease.

So again, we have a diagnostic test where you can get early indications about where you may be heading and if that is the case, then there are medications that people can get early on to help them manage the disease, like so many other things we talk about, early diagnosis, early intervention, better outcome.

CHIDEYA: I want to transition again to something that's very personal to you. We don't often get to see you face to face here in our studios but you're here for a sad reason and you made something positive out of it. Tell us about that.

Dr. WALKS: Well, I had a very good friend, a lifelong friend who just passed a few days ago from prostate cancer. And this is a guy that did everything right and I have permission from his family to talk about it. This is a guy, a huge physical specimen, former Harlem Globetrotter, tremendous individual, always healthy, always health conscious, died from prostate cancer before the age of 50.

Now we tell people all the time, when you get to 50, you see your doctor, you get your prostate checked. This is a gentleman that did everything right and still passed before the age of 50.

And so my message is, if anyone in your family has had prostate cancer, if there's any reason for you to believe that you're having some problems with how quickly you have to go to the bathroom and those kinds of things, get to your doctor, get diagnosed early, and don't let your doctor tell you, well, don't worry about this until later on. If you're between the ages of 40 and older than 40, get to your doctor and begin the conversation about it.

CHIDEYA: So how important is getting this message from friends and trusted people, social marketing?

Dr. WALKS: Well, we have this thing, you know, the brothers, we're not about to get this digital rectal exam. It's just not happening. And I think that we have to get past that and one of the ways we get past it is the social marketing.

The women in our lives, our boys, our dogs, whatever, if we are telling each other, hey, you know what? Man, I got mine. I don't want you to get yours. And the message from my friend is I wouldn't want anybody else to go through this. And I think that's something we have to tell each other.

CHIDEYA: Well, again, Dr. Walks, thank you so much for sharing this message.

Dr. WALKS: Good to be here. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Ivan Walks is chief executive officer of Ivan Walks and Associates. He's also the former chief health officer of the District of Columbia and he was here in our NPR West studios.

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