AP Photo/Richard Drew Viagra to be sold over the counter

Viagra is to go on sale without prescription for the first time, officials announced last night.

Men will be able to buy the drug directly from a pharmacist without seeing a GP in a bid to curb the booming online trade in counterfeit pills.

It make Britain the first place to make Viagra available over the counter and is the first time in NHS history that a medicine has been downgraded from prescription-only to combat fakes.

The drug, rebranded as Viagra Connect, will be available for just over R363 for a pack of four or R636 for eight. That is 28 times the current cost to the NHS. It pays 72p for four or R26 for eight 50mg pills of sildenafil, the generic name of Viagra, while each prescription costs patients R156

Erectile dysfunction affects more than half of middle-aged men, but 70 percent are too embarrassed to seek advice, stopping them from seeking help from a GP.

Many turn to the internet to obtain the drug, often buying illegal or fake versions from overseas, putting themselves at risk. More than £50million worth of illegal erectile dysfunction pills have been seized in Britain in the past five years, 90 percent of all unlicensed medications recovered by officials.

The new rules limit Viagra sales to pharmacies, meaning men will be questioned about their health before they are sold the pills.

They will not be able to buy the drugs at corner shops, supermarkets or petrol stations as is possible with aspirin and other drugs.

They will not be available to under-18s or those with heart, liver or kidney problems. The drug will remain available on prescription, if a doctor decides it is needed or if the patient has existing medical conditions.

There are likely to be concerns that men will be able to bulk-buy packs by going from pharmacy to pharmacy, something that is not possible with a prescription.

This may well increase the chances of side effects, which are a particular risk if a man takes too much of the drug. The maximum safe dose is 100mg. Possible side effects include nausea, headaches and even heart attacks.

While GPs have three strengths that they can prescribe, pharmacists will be restricted to selling the 50g middle-strength pills.

Plans to relax the rules were revealed by the Daily Mail in March. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) confirmed final approval for the move last night, following a public consultation.

Mick Foy, MHRA group manager in vigilance and risk management of medicines, said: ‘This decision is good news for men’s health. The move to make Viagra Connect more widely accessible will encourage men to seek help within the healthcare system and increase awareness of erectile dysfunction.

‘Erectile dysfunction can be a debilitating condition, so it’s important men feel they have fast access to quality and legitimate care, and do not feel they need to turn to counterfeit online supplies which could have potentially serious side effects.’

Martin Tod, chief executive of the Men’s Health Forum said: ‘If this means more men find it easier to get advice and help for erection problems, that can only be a good thing. Erection problems can be very distressing. Sometimes men end up buying fake drugs online without talking to anyone.’

Viagra is one of the most successful drugs ever developed, taken by millions of men since it was launched by Pfizer in 1998. The firm earns more than £1billion a year from the pills, even though its patent ended in 2013.

Royal Pharmaceutical Society president Professor Ash Soni, said: ‘The switch will increase access to a medicine that has been proven safe and effective through over 15 years of use by many millions of men, and provides a genuine and safe source of supply of one of the world’s most counterfeited medicines.

‘One of the underlying causes of erectile dysfunction is cardiovascular disease, so this will also bring more men into the healthcare system where they can get proper advice, and referral to their GP if necessary for further treatment.’

Dr David Edwards, a GP from Oxfordshire, said: ‘Anything that will deter men from buying dodgy, often counterfeit, drugs without any contact with a healthcare professional is to be applauded.’

Pfizer’s UK medical director Dr Berkeley Phillips said: ‘We understand some men may avoid seeking support and treatment.

‘Giving them the option to talk to a pharmacist and buy Viagra Connect could be a real step forward in encouraging more men into the healthcare system.’