Cyprus Mail

Liver transplant patient takes on Big Pharma in Limassol court

Limassol court

A 23-YEAR-OLD man has filed a lawsuit with the Limassol court against Pfizer Italy, a subsidiary of one the largest American pharmaceutical companies in the world.

The claim is that one of Pfizer’s antibiotics caused him liver failure, and though this is reportedly a rare side effect of the drug, the medication was said to have been inadequately labeled at the time it was prescribed to the patient.

The court on Thursday heard how Michalis Pitsillides who was 16 in 2009 was prescribed the antibiotic Zithromax.  His lawyer, Costas Melas claims a three-day course of the drug caused liver failure resulting in the teen having to be transferred by air ambulance to England for a transplant.

Once a high-jump athlete who was ready to play on a national level, Michalis claims he can no longer play as a result of his ordeal and his coach says it is too risky to take him on again.

His legal team’s key point is that “despite the fact that the risks of liver failure were known, there was no labelling warning of the risks.”

Two years later 2011, Pfizer modified Zithromax’s label to include ‘life threatening liver failure’ as a possible side effect. Previously it referred ‘liver disorder’, Melas said.

“The plaintiff’s lawyers in Cyprus consider this modification to the labelling as evidence of the product’s defectiveness prior to 2011,” they said.

“This is not the only case of serious liver failure caused by Zithromax. There are a series of articles, and publications from distinguished doctors and researchers documents liver failure caused by Zithromax as back as 1996.”

Pitsillides’ brother Alexandros, 21, took the stand on Thursday as a witness recalling the circumstances surrounding Michalis’ transplant.

“It was Sunday. (We were told) if no donor is found by Thursday, he would die. It was Holy Week we were all praying.”

A donor was found and although the transplant took place, Michalis’  brother, and his coach, Giorgios Apostollides, who also took the witness stand, claim he is no longer the same person.

After the surgery “he was not the Michalis I knew…I was shocked,” Alexandros said.

Upon his return to Cyprus “he couldn’t remember his home, friends…he would have fits of rage, cry,” everything was unpredictable and he was evidently unwell, he told court.

“He was a baby I had to take care of.”

Once an athlete proud of his physical appearance, Michalis’ body, the court heard, is now marred with scars and he is no longer the same person, Alexandros said.

Although he pursued his love for art in the studies he is currently enrolled it, Michalis, who used to write poetry, no longer does, his brother told the court. “Our father died of distress.”

Apostollides who knew Michalis for around three years as a school teacher and athletics coach said out of 800 peers, Michalis  was the best in high jump.

Recalling when they spoke on the phone after the transplant the coach said: “He was talking to me the way a deaf and mute person does. It shocked me.”

Visiting him a couple of times in England Apostollides added: “He wasn’t the same person he used to be. He was like a small kid.”

“They bought him a computer. He showed me the computer but he couldn’t open it.” Today “he continues to be a 14, 15-year-old kid” despite being 23.

During the district Limassol games held at the end of February in 2009, Michalis won first place, giving him the ticket to compete in the national games set to take place in the beginning of March that year.

On the day of the games however “Michallis at seven in the morning called me and said Mr Apostollides I can’t go I’m sick. I don’t want to go to school.”

His coach however encouraged him to go to school so as to avoid any absences. At school the assistant to the principal saw the boy and called his mum to pick him up as he seemed very unwell, Apostollides said.

Prior to his entry in the competition, Pitsillides had passed the required medical and was evaluated by the Cyprus Sports Organisation.

During cross-examination of Michalis’ brother Alexandros, lawyer Antonis Glykis, who is representing the doctor who prescribed the drug, sought to highlight that Alexandros was not in a position to pass medical judgments on his brother’s condition because he had not received those opinions directly from doctors but from his mother who was in England with Michalis at the time.

Pfizer’s lawyer Loukia Astreou took a similar approach in her cross, asking to what extent Alexandros heard of his brother’s problems – was it first hand, or was he was making assumptions. Alexandros conceded that it was a combination of both.

The case will resume on April 4.


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