In this digital era, there is no dearth of information and access to that is made easy with the advent of different communication mediums. The world of patients and diseases also can't save themselves from this information overdose. People are now self-diagnosing themselves with their symptoms and asking their doctors for medications accordingly, even though the physicians are trained professionals who can give better advice. Pharmaceutical companies use various tactics to encourage the overuse of allopathic care. For instance, in the case of cholesterol, people can make long-term life adjustments through their diet and exercise, but medications are more frequently prescribed. Not only is disinformation one of the factors behind it but also, pharmaceutical companies incentivise doctors to prescribe certain medicines by giving them several fringe benefits.
The overuse of allopathic treatment also impacts the environment which is one of its lesser-known effects. A Canadian study found that the drugs we consume which are eventually disposed of can make its way into rivers, streams and tap water as well. Drug disposal or ''dumping'' is yet to be studied more in-depth, but there is evidence that the fish and birds are suffering due to the surplus of estrogen in the water.
Pharmaceutical companies essentially also invent diseases (known as disease-mongering) in order to keep their profits steady. They have the power to convince people that they need those medications for their so-called conditions. When Merck produced a medication that would prevent hair loss, they advertised balding as a medical condition.
The pursuit of profits can have detrimental consequences. Thalidomide was marketed as a very safe sleeping pill and used for flu and nervousness, among other conditions. The human cost of maximising profits from thalidomide were 100 babies in Canada who were born without limbs in 1954. The side effects of this drug came out in 1959, yet the damage had already been done by then.
Initially, a West German company developed thalidomide (sold as GRIPPEX in 1954). Much like antibiotics nowadays, it was widely accessible, affordable and could be purchased without a prescription. So much was its safety emphasised in advertisements that in the United Kingdom (where it was sold as Distavel), it contained a picture of a child titled "This child's life may depend on the safety of Distavel.''
The drug company had also published an article in the 1961 issue of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, under the name of Dr Ray Neilson of Cincinnati even though it had been actually written by a medical research director of the pharmaceutical company. To make matters worse, the evidence used to promote the drug to pregnant women who took the medicine a few months before delivery when the baby already grew limbs. Companies continued to market the drug as safe for use despite evidence arising in 1959 that it was dangerous to consume especially if taken during the earlier months of pregnancy, that is before the limbs had developed.
Such tragic incidents did not stop with thalidomide. For contraceptives, there was Essure, a metal coil designed to be used as a form of permanent birth control by inserting it into the fallopian tubes. It was suggested by doctors who stated its convenience of taking only a few minutes to insert. However, Essure was launched in the market based on short-term studies. Hundreds of women across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom suffered from bleeding and excruciating pain which disrupted their daily lives. When they reported these symptoms to their doctors, it was dismissed as problems they made up in their heads. The only solution became the removal of the uterus as it was complicated to remove the coils. In this case, essentially the women who had trusted their doctors and got implanted with Essure became the long-term test subjects.
Prescriptions usually come in a piece of paper, but its weight is underestimated. The testing of the effectiveness of medication itself is flawed as samples are derived from primarily young males in their 30s. Often, women and old people are not included in these tests. Older people may not absorb medication in the same way that the younger males in the testing do as their metabolism may differ. Essentially, as all the incidents show, pharmaceuticals rely on trial and error after the medications reach their consumers. Once the money is extracted, the damage is already done.
It is safe to say that 2020 has been the year where people united in their worries. One of them is the wait for the vaccine, among other things. As vaccines are released, one can only wonder what side effects may come out of it as we become the long-term test subjects of it.
The author is a 2nd-year undergraduate student studying Global Health with a focus in Global Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at York University in Toronto.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.