Christmas Adjournment — [David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:04 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 2:04 pm, 20th December 2018

I too was expecting to come later in the order of speeches—Christmas has come early for me. Happy Christmas to everyone, and thank you to all the staff who run this place. I have said that now, so I will not repeat it.

I want to raise the subject of the danger caused by a drug called isotretinoin, which I have already spoken about—perhaps four times—in the House since becoming an MP. To date, I have to say, the collective view of the House has had little impact on actually sorting it out. Isotretinoin, also known as Accutane or Roaccutane, is a drug used to treat severe acne primarily in teenagers—mainly boys. It has dramatic effects: it clears acne up pretty quickly, but its side-effects can be enormous. It can cause severe depression and impotence in those who use it.

My concerns stem from contact with constituents, particularly one lady. She is the mother of a young man who has suffered enormously from isotretinoin. At the age of 16, he was given the drug for eight months. As a result, he suffered—forgive my language—complete erectile dysfunction, which has had a life-changing effect on him and, indeed, on his mental state. He is now in his early 20s, and it has of course had a dramatic effect on him. He has been through university, too.

Unsurprisingly, his mother is distraught, in particular because her son is now almost unwilling even to discuss the matter. I believe that we can all understand that. It must be very difficult for a young man to discuss such a matter with his mother. I, personally—I know I am from another generation—could not even have dreamt of talking about such a matter with my mother. I am really pleased that things have moved on, but I can still see the real difficulty for young men who have to discuss or bring up such matters.

I gather that there is an impact on young women, too: they can suffer a lack of libido. It is certainly considered a pretty dangerous prescription for a young pregnant woman, and doctors are careful about prescribing it if there is any chance that a young woman is pregnant. Pregnancy, however, can come as a pretty big surprise—it certainly has in my life and in my family. There is no fail-safe. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but we have all been there, have we not?

Isotretinoin can work very well, but for a small percentage of people, when it strikes, it has devastating effects. There is now well-documented evidence that it leads to suicide. I have brought those cases up when I have spoken about the matter before, but I do not intend to repeat them. Suffice to say, I am pretty sure that there is a direct link between the use of isotretinoin and some suicides.

If someone is depressed and feels that their life is over and that they are finished, they give up the will to live, which I have seen in some soldiers. I have seen a soldier who, when told of his injuries, said—forgive my language—“Oh, shit,” and he died, right there and then. I am quite sure that that could be the case for young men and women—particularly young men—in this situation.

I know that isotretinoin is a miracle drug for some—my daughter tells me that a lot of her friends use it—but for that small percentage of people who are deeply affected by it, causing problems such as depression and erectile dysfunction, it is devastating. Medical professionals warn people about the drug, and are careful about prescribing it, but I wonder whether, in view of the risks that we do not know about, we should be prescribing it at all.

I checked to see whether I personally could get hold of isotretinoin pills, and do so with relative ease and without a prescription. Of course, I used the internet. I did that yesterday. In this country, obviously, a prescription is required, but not so for companies based abroad. For example, a Canadian company called Online Pharmacy came up almost immediately. It offers Accutane—the same thing—and 10 pills cost £49.24. Delivery by air costs about £11.24, although I do not understand why that is quite so expensive from Canada to the UK, and apparently takes two to four weeks—I did not realise stuff would take that long to get across the Atlantic by air. The parcel, when it arrives, has discreet packaging so that no one knows what it contains—I am thinking of teenagers here, hiding it from the parents. It worries me, obviously that our teenagers—I still have two—can simply order this stuff and receive it, while parents have no idea. Incidentally, Online Pharmacy also promised to provide two free Viagra tablets, which is somewhat darkly ironic considering the problems I am talking about.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency—our regulator, on this side of the Atlantic—issues warnings to healthcare professionals on the risks, such as in October 2017, but nothing more instructive than that. The agency has declared that the matter is being closely monitored but, considering the anecdotal evidence and what are to me the clear problems caused for a small percentage of people who use it, that is not good enough. As I mentioned, there have now been four debates in Parliament in which Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern, and so I suppose I am representing them all today. I bring it up again because we had this debate in Westminster Hall about six months or so ago, and I want it to be kept to the forefront. I represent all parts of the House when I speak today.

Surely it is time for the Department of Health to establish a major investigation into this drug and, perhaps as a precaution, to order that prescribing it should be halted until we are absolutely certain that we can at least identify those people at risk, or mitigate those risks much more than we can now. I am sorry to raise such a difficult problem, but I do so only because, on behalf of all Members of the House, I think that we should continue to press for this matter to have a proper investigation by the Department. I wish everyone to think carefully before use of isotretinoin—in particular those people who might be listening and thinking of using it, which includes my kids’ friends—because I really think that it can have tragic outcomes.

God bless, everyone, and happy Christmas. I also thank those staff who come in and out all the time—I never quite know what they do, but they seem to be here for 10 minutes and then flit out. They flit in and flit out, and those of us who sit here hour after hour wonder whether we could take a break. I am sure they go out for a quick drink or a cigarette. I thank those staff who sit here listening to the likes of me warbling on for far too long. My warbling ends now—happy Christmas, everyone.