bad doctors, mad scientists, & evil big pharma

At least, that’s how those working in medicine/health were characterised in a letter to one of our local papers. The writer seems to see the whole vaccines/pandemic warnings issue as a conspiracy to drive up profits for doctors, scientists, & pharmaceutical companies.

Personally I always thought doctors & health researchers were in the business of helping people, but perhaps I’m just naive….. But no, I just don’t buy this conspiracy thing. (Yes, pharmaceutical companies make money from their products – so does anyone else succeeding in their business. And yes, they make errors from time to time & have been caught out – usually as a result of scientific scrutiny. But this is not the same as some global conspiracy to make outrageous profits from others’ ill-health.)

But I have heard people saying that the latest pandemic ‘scare’ – the one over Human Influenza A H1N1 (more commonly called ‘swine flu’) – has been rather overblown. After all, it seems to have turned out to be a storm in a teacup. Have we done ourselves a disservice in this? Will it make people more inclined to ignore the next warning.

I hope not – at the very least it has raised awareness of the public health steps needed to deal with any flu outbreak: the handwashing, use of tissues, & so on. And things could so easily have turned out differently. Apparently the H1N1 strain has already acquired the ability to spread between humans more easily than other strains of seasonal influenza. If this had been combined with virulence factors, so that H1N1 made people really seriously sick, then we would indeed be looking at a serious global health issue. The early & rapid response to ‘swine flu’ coming out of Mexico meant that we had a breathing space; if this virus does turn out to be less harmful than first expected, doesn’t mean it will be the same next time. (And that remains a big ‘if’, given that this does seem to be a rapidly-evolving strain.)

And if that breathing space gives people the luxury of time to complain, well, that’s human nature I guess.


You might be interested in this article from the NYTimes – the World Health Organisation is changing its ‘rules’ to do with warning the world about imminent pandemics. (Thanks, Grant!)

4 thoughts on “bad doctors, mad scientists, & evil big pharma”

  • While I agree that this isn’t a conspiracy theory, I do believe there is some truth behind the association of doctors and pharmaceuticals.
    Firstly, many doctors gain money for their research from pharmaceutical companies. This can often (subliminally or otherwise) affect the conclusions that are drawn from such research.
    Secondly, instead of viewing this as a conspiracy theory, perhaps we should view it more as a symptom of Western medicine. What I mean by this is that ‘quick fixes’ or drugs are the preferred method of treatment for most people. Take the Psychiatry industry as an example, the amount of antidepressants prescribed has greatly increased over the last ten years, despite methods like Cognitive Behavioural Treatments being proven to be highly effective.
    Sorry having written all this I realize I’ve diverted slightly from the original issue of pandemics/epidemics. As a brief note, the viruses that cause influenza and other diseases in animals are often different strains to those that cause disease in humans (in the case of H1N5, this strain can affect both humans and other animals). Thus reporting outbreaks of influenza may be misleading as the causes may be distinct.
    Anyway, that’s my 2c. Hope it stirs up some discussion 🙂 Great blog by the way Alison. I was at your talk at Massey on Wednesday (the blogging one) and found it very interesting. I’m now checking out some of the other science blogs around.

  • Mirjam with all respect, you need to understand the many industries involved in process of developing drugs and how they work before making remarks about them. There are a much wider range of companies involved than people outside of biotech industry seem to realise, and the processes involved are much more complex and time-consuming.
    Very few medical doctors do research; most are “just” GPs or hospital staff. The majority of research is either done within universities and independent research institutes, or within research companies or within the larger pharmaceutical research & development companies (but not the production or distribution companies or sectors).
    Most initial leads are developed in a “pure” research environment, e.g. universities or research institutes. Pharmaceutical companies are well aware of that: they try keep up with what research groups in their area of interest are finding.
    Research in pharmaceutical R&D companies usually starts where the universities leave off, following the initial leads developed by academic research. In many cases they don’t even start there, but they start by purchasing a smaller research company or licensing their work or some other arrangement. For example smaller “spin off” companies are sometimes formed by taking a university group & project with promising leads and “spinning them out” into a small research company, which hopes to later sell their product to a larger research company or be purchased by a larger company. Generally, companies can’t afford (much of) the more openly exploratory work done in academic circles, they must be more focused on working towards something that will eventually return a profit, like all businesses.
    (Added in editing:) A different concern is the marketing of drugs and how the marketing is directed at patients and doctors. (I’m out of time to elaborate, perhaps just as well!)
    My understanding is that there is a lot of controversy over if “Cognitive Behavioural Treatments” are effective or not. It’s not an area I can judge first-hand, but I get the distinct impression there is more than one side on these types of treatment. My impression is that much of these “treatments” don’t so much treat the patient so much as manage their conditions.
    I think you need to explain what you mean by “the viruses that cause influenza and other diseases in animals are often different strains to those that cause disease in humans (in the case of H1N5, this strain can affect both humans and other animals). Thus reporting outbreaks of influenza may be misleading as the causes may be distinct.”
    (I can’t see what you are trying to say. Influenza is very well known to “jump” species, so that one particular variant that is infecting one species can also infect another (e.g. pigs and human); it’s how the “new” strains of influenza usually get into the human population.)
    Getting back to the actual topic, I think the main problem is the media jumping on to these things in the wrong way. They need to learn or be taught that this is now a routine approach. Since we can now monitor disease outbreak quite promptly and since transport is global, an approach of reacting to outbreaks is a sensible approach and will continue. It’s an insurance against the 1 in 10 (or whatever) that will prove to be a serious concern. They’re not “instant” events, but rather monitored events with an eye to what they might become. The Mexico City H1N1 is still an on-going thing, for example.
    Just my far too many cents!

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Hmmm. Well, at first sight I’d have to say that the page you link to carries a lot of the hallmarks of ‘conspiracy’ pages, in terms of its use of overblown language & hints of all sorts of coverups. That could, of course, simply be reflecting the fact that English is not the author’s first language 🙂 But it would incline me to treat everything on the next page along with at least a grain or two of caution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *