Health

A star for team arthritis

Robert Sheppard September 27 1999
Health

A star for team arthritis

Robert Sheppard September 27 1999

A star for team arthritis

Health

When hockey great Wayne Gretzky let it be known early last week that he may be suffering from arthritis, the phone at the Toronto-based Arthritis Society rang off the hook. “I had one elderly woman call from the West who was just thrilled that someone of Gretzky’s stature would publicize this disease,” said society president Denis Morrice. “She said it made her want to get out her old figure skates. Then she just started crying.”

By week’s end, however, those tears of joy were mingling with a slightly sour taste in the mouth. Gretzky, it seems, may not actually have the disease. He has symptoms—stiffness and soreness in his shoulders—consistent with early stages of osteoarthritis, the most common form of a painful disease that affects four million Canadians. But he has not been formally diagnosed. What’s more, the arthritis-awareness campaign he has undertaken—he says voluntarily—with the American arm of drug-manufacturer McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, is to run hand in hand with a promotion for the drugmaker’s Tylenol brand of pain

Wayne Gretzky is getting paid to sell a painkiller, but does he even have the disease?

reliever—for which he will be paid.

Well before his public service announcements will be broadcast urging people to get early checkups for arthritis, there was Gretzky last week in a Tylenol commercial saying that because of his age—38—he was surprised to be told he may have arthritis. He says he takes the brand-name pain reliever for it anyway—on “doctors orders.” The commercialization of the message shocked some fans. At the Canadian Arthritis Society—which has

no direct role in the campaign—callers’ reactions ran the gamut from total support to revulsion to confusion. Still, the society is delighted that Gretzky is raising awareness. “People really are phoning about osteoarthritis,” said one spokesman for the society. “So, hello, it’s worked.”

Gretzky joins a growing list of celebrities pitching drugs, especially in the United States where even prescription medications are fair game. It is a competitive field. In the case of arthritis, the leading cause of long-term disability in Canada, researchers expect the number of afflicted to double in the years ahead because of aging baby boomers. Last year, $278 million worth of anti-arthritic prescription drugs were sold in this country.

For early-stage arthritis, over-thecounter drugs like Tylenol (acetaminophen) have enjoyed an advantage over certain anti-inflammatory drugs such as Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), which can cause stomach and kidney problems with prolonged usage. But recently, a

new generation of anti-inflammatories has emerged that does not have those side-effects. Pharmaceutical-maker Searle’s new arthritis drug Celebrex has roared off the pharmacists’ shelves: 428,400 prescriptions during its first three months on the market make it the fastest-selling new drug ever in Canada, even outstripping the popular antiimpotence drug Viagra.

Gretzky’s message, like that of former downhill ski champion Todd Brooker, 39, the official unpaid spokesman for the Arthritis Society, is that arthritis can hit Canadians of all ages. It resonates with 36-year-old Bonita Atkinson, who works at a fish-processing plant in South Side, N.S., and has put up with aching knees since high school. When she finally went to see a bone specialist in the spring, she had no idea she would be diagnosed with osteoarthritis. “I was shocked,” says Atkinson. “My father is crippled with arthritis. But I thought it was something that just hit old people.”

So did Gretzky, who earlier this year visited his own doctor complaining of

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stiffness in his shoulders, knees and back, especially after long car trips. “Obviously, I was surprised when my doctor said these pains could easily be early symptoms of common arthritis,” the recently retired superstar said in a publicity video for McNeil’s campaign.

One in seven Canadians suffer from one or more of the 100 varieties of arthritis. Osteoarthritis involves the degeneration of cartilage in joints. Rheumatoid arthritis, a more serious strain, affects the auto-immune system and leaves the sufferer with inflamed joints throughout the body. Nova Scotia, which has the highest rate of arthritis in the country with folly 20 per cent of the population over the age of 12 afflicted, could easily be overwhelmed. And, like elsewhere, its scientists find that arthritis does not draw the big research dollars that go towards lifethreatening ailments like AIDS and heart disease. “It is quite simply a question of visibility,” concludes John Hanly, head of the rheumatology division at Halifax’s Dalhousie University.

That is where celebrity cachet comes in. Gretzky joins National Football League Hall of Famer Joe Montana on the arthritis front. Comedian Michael J. Fox and actress Mary Tyler Moore have publicized the causes of Parkinson’s disease and juvenile diabetes, respectively, for personal reasons. Celebrity promoters can increase pressure on governments and granting agencies.

For the worst afflicted, the good news is that new artificial hip and knee replacements are lasting longer. Each year, 38,000 Canadians undergo the procedure. But often nothing really works. Helen Tupper, 37, uses a combination of physiotherapy and prescription pain relievers to control the pain that has spread from her knees to her right hip, hands and elbows. “The worst time is the morning,” says the Dartmouth, N.S., artist. “I just have to will myself to move.” Like a 20-year career in professional hockey, arthritis is a test of endurance.

Robert Sheppard

John DeMont

in Halifax