Take a pill

First there was Viagra for men; now there’s a pill especially designed for women

he day of August 18, 2015 was a significant one for sexologists worldwide. After a long and controversial process, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first drug aimed at boosting female libido. The medication, called Flibanserin, will be sold under the brand name Addyi, also known as “pink Viagra”.

However, it is not pink and it has nothing in common with the blue pill, Viagra, for men. Viagra works “below the belt” while Addyi does its work inside the brain.

We answer a few FAQs:

Q: What is Flibanserin?

A: Originally designed as an antidepressant, it failed to reduce depression in clinical trials, but it appeared to achieve positive sexual health outcomes. It’s not uncommon for a drug to be developed for one purpose and then approved for another. Sildenafil (Viagra), for example, was developed to lower blood pressure, but failed to do so in the trials.

Q: How does this drug work to boost a woman’s libido?

A: Researchers believe that Flibanserin corrects some of the chemical imbalances that affect sexual desire. Antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), like fluoxetine (Prozac), can have negative sexual side effects, such as reduced libido or erectile dysfunction. This suggests that serotonin plays an important role in sexual desire and arousal. Flibanserin affects serotonin but in a different way: it stimulates one type of receptor while blocking another, and it increases dopamine in the body, which is known to have positive effects on sexual health.

Q: What are its benefits and drawbacks?

A: This is the first medication approved to treat sexual desire disorders, and that’s one of the benefits for some women. There are clear biological processes that affect sexual desire and function. Flibanserin was shown to have a modest improvement over placebo in increasing desire. Women taking the drug had up to two more satisfying sexual events (SSEs) each month, compared to the placebo’s increase of one more SSE a month.

It is difficult to overcome the placebo effect when studying drugs; people often improve on placebo alone. The controversy over Flibanserin focuses on the degree of benefit. Is one more sexually satisfying event each month enough of a benefit? For many women, this is a significant increase and should not be dismissed.

The drawbacks are that there are adverse side effects – dizziness and drowsiness – which can affect about 10 percent to 15 percent of women taking the medication. This is not significantly different from the widely prescribed SSRI antidepressants. As yet we have no long-term data on other potential risks, including cancer. Viagra was, however, approved with six months of safety data. Most studies on Flibanserin have one to two years of safety data.

Another drawback is that people are concerned this drug will simplify the complex factors that are involved in women’s sexuality.

Q: Why is Flibanserin such big news?

A: Millions of women worldwide report suffering from sexual dysfunction, the most common being loss of libido.

Until now, their only options were expensive therapies, including psychotherapy, hormones or supplements. But now, just as Viagra opened the door for men to talk about, and address, sexual health, the hope is that Flibanserin will do the same for women.

Addyi will be available in the US on October 17, 2015, but it might be a few years before it will be made available in South Africa by the Medicines Control Council. *

* The Medicines Control Council applies standards laid down by the Medicines and Related Substances Act 101 of 1965, which governs the manufacture, distribution, sale and marketing of medicines. The prescribing and dispensing of medicines, including complementary medicines, are strictly controlled.


Elna McIntosh is a sexologist and has for the past 30 years helped couples and individuals to explore their sexuality “outside of the box”. Her greatest claim to fame – surviving breast cancer … twice.
email: disa@icon.co.za

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