Five health and pharmaceutical groups launched an effort yesterday to accomplish what the government has so far failed to do: put labels on aspirin warning against its being given to children with chicken pox and flu.
The red stickers, which warn of an association between aspirin and a life-threatening disease called Reye's syndrome, will be made available immediately at a fraction of a cent each to wholesale drug distributors.
The distributors will be urged to use the warning labels now, as the flu season is beginning, rather than wait until the Reagan administration completes action on a proposed label requirement that is not expected to go into effect before spring.
"We're doing what should have been required," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group, a Ralph Nader-founded consumer group that is spearheading the labeling campaign.
He said the effort also is backed by the American Public Health Association, the American Pharmaceutical Association, the National Wholesale Druggists Association and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, which Wolfe said represented most wholesale druggists.
The effort does not have the blessing of aspirin manufacturers, however, who have vigorously fought warnings about the risks of their product.
Dr. Joseph White, president of the Aspirin Foundation, an educational group funded by the industry, yesterday called the labeling campaign "wild" and "impractical," and maintained that studies showing the association with Reye's syndrome were "not properly run."
Experts said yesterday that the attempt to put a warning label voluntarily on an over-the-counter product appeared to be without precedent and could be open to legal challenge.
Health and Human Services Secretary Richard S. Schweiker announced in June that the government would require warning labels on aspirin-containing products. A proposed regulation was sent from HHS to the White House Office of Management and Budget in late September, and the department has initiated a public information campaign of its own.
Dr. Mark Novitch, Food and Drug Administration deputy administrator, said yesterday that the proposal was still awaiting approval and that "careful study" would be given to the voluntary label, which has somewhat stronger language than the government's proposal.
Reye's syndrome is a mysterious disease that strikes as many as 1,200 children a year in this country. It begins with vomiting and progresses to coma and death in more than 20 percent of the cases, with permanent brain damage in others.