Two drugmakers spent hundreds of millions of dollars last year to raise awareness of a murky illness, helping boost sales of pills recently approved as treatments and drowning out unresolved questions - including whether it's a real disease at all.
Key components of the industry-funded buzz over the pain-and-fatigue ailment fibromyalgia are grants - more than $6 million donated by drugmakers Eli Lilly and Pfizer in the first three quarters of 2008 - to nonprofit groups for medical conferences and educational campaigns, an Associated Press analysis found.
That's more than they gave for more accepted ailments such as diabetes and Alzheimer's. Among grants tied to specific diseases, fibromyalgia ranked third for each company, behind only cancer and AIDS for Pfizer, and cancer and depression for Lilly.
Fibromyalgia draws skepticism for several reasons. The cause is unknown. There are no tests to confirm a diagnosis. Many patients also fit the criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome and other pain ailments.
Experts do not doubt that the patients are in pain. They differ on what to call it and how to treat it.
Many doctors and patients say the drugmakers are educating the medical establishment about a misunderstood illness, much as they did with depression in the 1980s. Those with fibromyalgia have often had to fight perceptions that they are hypochondriacs, or even faking their pain.
But critics say the companies are hyping fibromyalgia along with their treatments, and that the grant making is a textbook example of how drugmakers unduly influence doctors and patients.
Between the first quarter of 2007 and the fourth quarter of 2008, sales rose from $395 million to $702 million for Pfizer's Lyrica, and $442 million to $721 million for Lilly's Cymbalta.
Drugmakers respond to skepticism by pointing out that fibromyalgia is recognized by medical societies, including the American College of Rheumatology.