How Viagra is saving children with heart problems - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

How Viagra is saving children with heart problems

By Karen Abernathy - bio | email

Heart disease kills a half a million people year. And while we typically associate it with adults, children are also affected.

One growing problem among children, is pulmonary hypertension, a potentially deadly blood vessel disorder that makes the heart work harder. Now, doctors are turning to a very adult drug, Viagra, to treat the condition in kids.

The blue pill known to help erectile dysfunction is now helping children with serious health problems - children like 3-year-old Genevieve Hernandez.  Little Genevieve suffers from pulmonary hypertension - a lack of oxygen causes her to pass out. 

Her Mom, Sandra Hernandez remembers that she "heard a smash on the floor. I turned around and I looked and she was face down on the floor."

Dr. James Swift, Pediatric Intensive Care Physician at Sunrise Children's Hospital in Las Vegas, says that Pulmonary Hypertension "doesn't allow enough oxygen into the bloodstream and then circulate to the rest of the body."  That's because the has to work harder, to force the blood through.  If the pressure gets high enough, eventually the heart can't keep up and less blood can circulate through the lungs to pick up oxygen.  That's what causes patients to become tired, dizzy and short of breath. 

Typically the only options are heart and lung transplants, but doctors use Viagra to open up the vessels. It's not really surprising if you consider that when the FDA approved the drug in 1998, it was to treat angina.   

"Nitric oxide was developed for these types of issues in the lungs, and one of the byproducts was, Hey, this medication can also dilate blood vessels in other parts of the body and treat things like erectile dysfunction."

Even newborns are taking Viagra. Pulmonary hypertension is virtually a death sentence for newborn babies and is also life threatening for children.

Still, some parents are skeptical about giving their children Viagra. 

"If we have a child who's in their teen years, they obviously go, 'Well, how do I explain this?' I was like, 'What? We're just like, really? Viagra?' But it's working," Hernandez said. 

Doctors say this is not a cure, but a treatment to bridge the gap for children, until a cure is found. Children who take Viagra will typically need to stay on it for their entire life. And while it saves lives, potential risks include blindness, liver damage, and upset stomach.

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