A bitter pill

Blockbusters are very popular movies that bring in a lot of money for the movie production companies. But disgracefully, the same name is used for pharmaceutical drugs. It is applied to drugs that generate more than one billion US dollars of revenue in a year for the pharmaceutical company that sells them. How did we get to this crazy situation of making so much money over people’s misery?

Loading a blockbuster bomb during World War II.

Loading a blockbuster bomb during World War II.

The word blockbuster has yet another meaning. It was a very large bomb used in World War II by the Royal Air force of Britain with enough explosive power to destroy an entire street or a large building. It seems like a cynical reference to what the pharmaceutical industry nowadays in fact is doing: undermining people’s health, economically and factually.

Penicillin
Of course, we have scientists who discovered chemical substances that help cure or prevent certain illnesses, and the pharmaceutical companies that made those substances into medicines or vaccines, a lot to thank for. Without them, it wouldn’t have been possible for instance to eliminate polio from most of the world. And many, many people would still die of severe infections had it not been for the Brit Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin in 1928.

Of course, pharmaceutical companies are allowed to make up for their investments in developing drugs. After all, they are commercial enterprises, privately owned, that have gone into this business for making money and not as benefactors. But should it be that much money?

Especially when you consider the list of blockbuster drugs. Do so many people need to take drugs to lower their cholesterol, to battle depression, to tackle atherosclerosis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, rheumatoid arthritis? To name just one figure: 95 percent of Americans use at least one pharmaceutical drug daily or weekly.
No wonder, the World Health Organisation is calling irrational use of medicine a major problem worldwide. Apart from underuse in certain countries where life-saving medicines are not available, it is misuse and overuse that are overwhelming. And pill consumption only continues to grow.

Funding
One of the basic laws of economy is that if demand is growing, production will rise to fulfil that demand. So, more and more scientists are pushed into research for the development of new medicines. It is hardly possible anymore to do basic research, to be an Einstein, or an Alfred Nobel, or a Freud. If the research is not directed towards creating a – preferably lucrative – product, you won’t be able to find funding.

Even in medical science, it seems to be all about money. (© hin255 – Fotolia.com)

Even in medical science, it seems to be all about money. (© hin255 – Fotolia.com)

Neuroscience is a hugely popular topic, also in the funding game, but many of the research studies published nowadays don’t actually make a lot of sense. They have tackled such an ultra-tiny, isolated topic that it is difficult to find a use for the outcome of the research. And the humongous amount of research publications that flood the world every day makes it almost impossible to see the big picture. Someone should draw a line and outline what we should be doing to improve our knowledge of the functioning of the human brain which is still terribly lacking.

And at the same time tackle the bias that appears to have entered scientific research. Too many scientists just don’t take on their research project as pure and neutral as possible anymore, but mould the research results to make them fit the outcome they had wished for. Or, for that matter, that the funding provider wishes for.

Even the government institutions that have to check whether the positive effects of new drugs outweigh the negative ones, are not unbiased anymore. Who could stand up to the huge amounts of money circulating in the pharmaceutical industry? Stories about the harmful effects of drugs on the individual who takes them, on his offspring, on the environment, rarely reach mainstream news and if they do, are hushed up rapidly and easily.

Magic
It seems the general public doesn’t mind what the pill is for or what it does to their bodies, as long as it is a pill and they can take it. People don’t want to take responsibility for their own health. They prefer the easy way and want someone else to take care of it, preferably cast in pill shape. You only have to remember to take it and you’re done.

People prefer to swallow pills instead of taking responsibility for their health in their own hands (© ngaga35 – Fotolia.com)

People prefer to swallow pills instead of taking responsibility for their health in their own hands (© ngaga35 – Fotolia.com)

The allure of the magic pill is powerful. It helps you run away from depression, from attention deficit, from high cholesterol, instead of facing the choices you have made and should be making. Of course, it would be fantastic if someone would come up with a cure for terrible diseases like motor neurone diseases of which ALS is the most well-known. But do we really need a pill that mimics the effect of physical exercise in your muscles so you don’t have to go through the trouble of going to the gym?

The primary risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is old age. “So, maybe it is time we should learn to cope with decline and accept that dementia is a part of ageing”, thinks Anne-Mei The, professor of Long-Term Care and Dementia at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. According to the professor, dementia has been made into an epidemic disease by medical science and pharmaceutical industry who have ulterior interests. “We cannot solve everything with pills and technology. I think a drug for dementia is an illusion.”

Many health problems can be prevented by lifestyle changes. Your lifestyle has a lot to do with how you age and a healthy way of living, combining exercise, healthy diet, and stimulating activities, has proven to help stave off dementia. But that is not as easy as taking a pill of course.

Intertwined
The same goes true for depression. It is possible to tackle depression by rigorous and continuous physical exercise. One session of exercise can improve mood temporarily, but it takes longer to change mood day to day. And exercise has a very beneficial side effect: it builds confidence in your own ability to cope.

It is possible to tackle depression by rigorous and continuous exercise, but people would rather take antidepressants. (© goodmanphoto – Fotolia.com)

It is possible to tackle depression by rigorous and continuous exercise, but people would rather take antidepressants. (© goodmanphoto – Fotolia.com)

But especially in the realm of antidepressants, interests of science and pharmaceutical industry are very tightly intertwined, as Trudy Dehue, professor of Theory and History of Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands showed in her book De Depressie Epidemie (The depression epidemic). She accuses both groups of manipulating scientific results and concealing negative side-effects in order to sell more pills.

“The intimate cooperation between science, industry, and government leads to commercial, product (pills) directed medical research”, she says.

Unfortunately, medical science is still almost solely about combatting symptoms and medical research is presently almost completely aimed at developing arms to use in this fight. Whereas it should be focussed more on prevention, on educating people to take their health into their own hands instead of relying totally on pills. Maybe someday some weird researcher funded by a greedy pharmaceutical company comes up with a vaccin to cover oneself against life. To live is dangerous, you know. It can kill you!

Images

Blockbuster movie © ponomarencko – Fotolia.com
Pill production © RGtimeline – Fotolia.com

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