How ‘female Viagra’ works and who it’s right for

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Women in Grand Rapids are asking about the first drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat women who have a sexual desire disorder, but only a few have gotten prescriptions in the drug’s first month and only a small group of women will qualify for it.

The drug is called Addyi, or flibanserin. It was released October 17, and it requires a prescription from a qualified doctor. Addyi is designed to treat a condition called hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which studies say nearly 10 percent of women have.

“It’s a huge issue. It’s a huge issue for relationships. These women really suffer. These relationships suffer when it’s not addressed,” Nisha McKenzie, a physician’s assistant at Grand Rapids OB/GYN, said.

Nisha McKenzie, a physician's assistant at Grand Rapids OB/GYN. (Nov. 19, 2015)
(McKenzie)

She said since the pill was approved by the FDA in August, women have been asking her about it and calling in to the office to ask about it.

But she said most of the women who ask about it don’t qualify for a prescription.

“Hypoactive sexual desire disorder is not that overly common as far as a lot of people think they have it. It really is if you’re going to go on vacation and feel more sexually active at that time, you don’t have sexual desire disorder,” said McKenzie. “A lot of people that just don’t want to do it on a daily basis, they don’t always have hypoactive sexual desire disorder.”

McKenzie said she’s happy women are asking about it, because even if Addyi isn’t available to them, there may be other therapies that can help with sexual relations.

“I think it mostly opens the doors for women where women didn’t necessarily know. Historically, we haven’t been told that we can talk about our own sexuality,” McKenzie said. “Even if this doesn’t work for everyone, which it won’t, it’s a great groundbreaker to open up the doors for more people to say, ‘Maybe we’ll do some studies and maybe now we’ll pay for some background and some research into women’s sexual functions so we can make this better for some women.’”

An FDA drug trial showed that Addyi improved sexual function in about 20 percent of participants. It is only approved for premenopausal women.

Although many are calling Addyi the “female Viagra,” experts, including the company that created it, stress it works completely differently than the little blue pill that treats erectile dysfunction in men.

“[That name is] definitely not accurate. It’s the first medication that’s been approved for a female sexual function, which Viagra is for male sexual function, so that’s the only relatability there,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie explained Addyi was initially tested to be an antidepressant, so it works gradually on brain chemistry and women won’t see any results for two to four weeks.

Viagra acts more immediately on blood flow and can be taken on an as-needed basis.

(An Addyi patient-provider agreement form and discount card.)
(An Addyi patient-provider agreement form and discount card.)

Another big difference is that patients on Addyi cannot drink alcohol at all. Drug tests showed that drinking alcohol and using Addyi could lead to extremely low blood pressure and fainting. The risk is so severe patients have to sign a form saying they understand the risk and promise not to drink while taking the pill. The complication also means that doctors and pharmacists have to go through a short training and test before they can prescribe or administer the drug.

24 Hour News 8 found that 31 pharmacies in the Grand Rapids area have signed up to administer the drug. Only one of those is independent: Keystone Pharmacy.

Mary Heim is a women’s health specialist at Keystone and said she’s particularly interested in drug because it could offer relief to so many. She said Keystone is interested in providing the drug for one main reason.

“Compassionate care,” she said. “These women have tried a lot of different things. They’re struggling. This is an important part of their relationship and they want this part to improve.”

Heim said Keystone has only received one prescription so far, but she’s optimistic they will see more eventually.

“If it’s as successful as Viagra, all the pharmacies will jump on board. It’s going to be driven by how well this works and how well women want it and what happens, so the pharmacies will jump on board if there’s a demand. The insurance companies will figure out a way to work with the patients. It will happen if there’s a big enough demand,” said Heim.

Initial estimates of the drug’s first month don’t seem to indicate that Addyi will be as successful as Viagra.

Bloomberg estimates fewer than 300 Addyi prescriptions have been written nationwide in the drug’s first three weeks. That’s compared to hundreds of thousands of Viagra prescriptions in its first month. The company that developed and manufactures Addyi, Sprout Pharmaceuticals, said it does not track prescriptions and cannot confirm or deny Bloomberg’s figure.

“We are proud that Sprout has been able to launch Addyi just two months after FDA approval and we are confident in where we stand just a few short weeks after coming to the market,” Sprout said in a statement after being contacted by 24 Hour News 8.

“I think that the initial hype was probably a little more than what the medication is going to be as far as being helpful. However, the women that it does help, it’s groundbreaking for them, it’s groundbreaking for their relationship. It may not help the millions that Viagra does because even women who are good candidates may not respond well to the medication,” McKenzie said.

(An Addyi discount card.)
(An Addyi discount card.)

Both McKenzie and Heim said health insurance isn’t currently covering Addyi, which means the drug could cost about $800 per month.

McKenzie said doctor’s offices that are qualified to prescribe the drug will receive, or have received, discount cards that bring the cost down to about $20 a month. She said the cards are good for at least the first seven months.

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