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Treatment with St John's wort extract tablets (hypericum Ze 117) and the commonly used slow serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) fluoxetine was compared in patients with mild-moderate depression with entry Hamilton Depression Scale (HAM-D) (21-item) in the range 16-24, in a randomized, double-blind, parallel group comparison in 240 subjects; fluoxetine: 114 (48%), hypericum: 126 (52%). After 6 weeks' treatment, mean HAM-D at endpoint decreased to 11.54 on hypericum and to 12.20 on fluoxetine (P < 0.09), while mean Clinical Global Impression (CGI) item I (severity) was significantly (P < 0.03) superior on hypericum, as was the responder rate (P = 0.005). Hypericum safety was substantially superior to fluoxetine, with the incidence of adverse events being 23% on fluoxetine and 8% on hypericum. The commonest events on fluoxetine were agitation (8%), GI disturbances (6%), retching (4%), dizziness (4%), tiredness, anxiety / nervousness and erectile dysfunction (3% each), while on hypericum only GI disturbances (5%) had an incidence greater than 2%. We concluded that hypericum and fluoxetine are equipotent with respect to all main parameters used to investigate antidepressants in this population. Although hypericum may be superior in improving the responder rate, the main difference between the two treatments is safety. Hypericum was superior to fluoxetine in overall incidence of side-effects, number of patients with side-effects and the type of side-effect reported.