How many of us are being killed and hurt by the industries we rely on to save our lives?

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There is growing awareness that the drug industry uses financial incentives to get doctors and institutions to change their practices in such a way as to favour prescription of their drug. This practice has been going on behind the scenes for decades, but more attention has been brought to the problem over the past few years. 

Patients are consumers of what is often a profit-driven business. In a conflict of interests, doctors and institutions are being paid, not only to provide patient care, but also to promote certain drugs, treatments, medical devices and investigations. There is plenty of evidence that shows that, even when people realise that payments are being made to influence their behaviours (in this case prescribing habits) the majority of people believe that they can remain objective. But they are usually wrong. Pharmaceutical influence has been proven to alter prescribing patterns. Sponsorship by big food influences dietary guidelines. Lobbying influences political decisions. 

We estimate that 85% of chronic illness is non-communicable, and diet, lifestyle, stress and toxic exposures are the main contributors to this. Yet, the treatments that doctors usually reach for in the first instance are drugs and procedures. Or they give vague advice about how you need to “lose weight”, “stop smoking”, or “cut down on your alcohol intake”. Unfortunately there has been a real lack of training for doctors on specifics of how to support patients with these goals, which is pretty tragic, if you think about it. Many people who are overweight or obese already know this, and have been on yo-yo diets most of their adult lives, regaining all of the lost weight, and usually more, after every cycle. The good news is that there is some evidence that the tide is turning. Courses on lifestyle medicine are now available for doctors, and the interest in these is growing.

There is also more and more awareness of the fact that low fat dietary guidelines, first introduced in the 1970s, have never been backed up by sound science, and that the evidence against them has been stacking up, particularly over the past decade. However, dietary guidelines are written by policy makers absolutely entrenched in the low fat way of thinking, and there is little evidence that they consider the full complement of research before creating guidelines. Worse still, many policy makers have received payments from the food industry, or are even employed by the food industry, as Zoë Harcombe has illustrated for the UK Eatwell guidelines. 

It is easy to see how badly things can go wrong for patients due to a failure to conduct appropriate research prior to licensing of pharmaceuticals, a failure of regulatory systems to ensure the safety of pharmaceuticals, and a failure of appropriate surveillance to detect adverse reactions, but here are a couple of examples. One you've probably heard of, and one you might not have. 

Nearly everyone has heard of thalidomide, a sedative drug prescribed to many women during pregnancy to treat morning sickness, but without any checks on how it might affect the foetus, and how it resulted in life altering effects on the babies of these women, characterized by severe limb deformities. 

A less well known problem has been the use of gadolinium based contrast agents, which have been injected into millions of people of all ages, including pregnant women and babies, without a single long term safety study to assess for negative effects. Gadolinium is an extremely toxic heavy metal that acts as a calcium channel blocker. It is known to be toxic to mitochondria and cells, highly inflammatory, not excreted spontaneously by humans or other animals and bioaccumulates. Gadolinium is bound to experimental contrast agents containing DTPA (hese are also drugs with toxic effects. In fact the use of calcium DTPA is recommended against during pregnancy due to concerns about its toxicity) in order to reduce the toxic effects of the free gadolinium, and to encourage its elimination in the urine following injection. However, even early studies showed that not all the contrast agents were eliminated following injection into subjects, and a proportion is retained long term. What sort of effects does the scientific literature suggest as a result of this? No studies were performed. Even worse is the fact that no studies were done on patients in renal failure to assess elimination before this drug was injected into them. It took 20 years to discover that a horrible, intractable, agonisingly painful, often fatal condition characterised by calcification and hardening of all body tissues, including the joints and skin of renal patients, called nephrogenic systemic sclerosis (NSF) was caused by gadolinium based contrast agents injected during MRI scans. 

Renal patients are not the only people complaining of devastating symptoms following 1 or more gadolinium scans: many people with normal renal function are also describing profound and life altering symptoms, but are being dismissed, but not because there is any scientific evidence that these gadolinium based contrast agents are safe: quite the contrary. It is now completely indisputable that every person injected with them retains a proportion of gadolinium for the rest of their lives, and that retention is cumulative. There is also data that many people injected with 1 or more of these contrast agents complain of symptoms which are often very similar to those that renal patients with NSF complain of: pain, joint problems, stiffness, weakness and other symptoms. In Europe and a few other countries use of some of the least stable of these agents has been stopped or limited. However, use of this class of agents as a whole is increasing, and is still being used frequently in pregnant women and babies, despite the fact that the only research done on pregnant women reveals an increase in stillbirths and neonatal death rates and in diseases characterised by inflammation of the skin and joints (again very similar to the tissues most affected in renal patients with NSF). 

These are not the only instances where patients are harmed by prescription medications. The recent “opioid crisis” highlights this as well. In fact prescription drugs are now widely considered to be the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer, in western-style civilizations. 

How have we reached a point where the most appropriate treatment options, the safest investigations, and the most evidence-based diets are not routinely discussed with patients in detail, if at all? Could it be as simple as just following the money? 

I will leave you with this recent article from the Globe and Mail, which highlights how a few drug companies paid almost $75 million to doctors and health care organisations in Canada in 2017 alone, and this does not even cover all payments, just those voluntarily declared, and let you make your own mind up.

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Max Planck. 

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