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Asthma is a highly-prevalent, yet also easily treatable condition. Drugs and inhalers can make asthma manageable for sufferers and enable them to suppress symptoms and to deal effectively with sudden, severe flare-ups. Asthma is often related to allergies and therefore responds to treatment by so-called “allergy shots.” The benefit of this treatment is that the patient does not need to take medicine every day or carry around an inhaler all the time.

Xolair, produced by Genentech and Novartis, is a type of shot used to treat allergy-related asthma that has recently been linked to instances of anaphylaxis in some patients. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that has a very rapid onset and can be fatal. It causes swelling, severe respiratory distress, hives, fainting, and other reactions throughout the body. Anaphylaxis requires emergency medical treatment including the administration of steroids and oxygen. Xolair, in rare circumstances, can cause anaphylaxis, even in patients who have previously taken the shot without incident, and the life-threatening reaction can begin up to 24-hours after the shot if given. The FDA has therefore mandated that Xolair include labeling warning of this very dangerous side-effect and urges doctors to instruct patients in how to respond to an anaphylactic episode should one occur (e.g. having steroid syringes prepared for self-administration, etc.).

Fortunately, no deaths have been linked to Xolair, but the episode does point out the potentially catastrophic side-effects of other such allergy treatments, which can, in some individuals, actually trigger the very response they are supposed to prevent–but with a vengeance. In other cases of high-profit drugs that caused severe health problems, it turned out that manufacturers were aware of the danger, but chose not to publicize their knowledge until forced to do so. Vioxx is a prime example.

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