Five times the medical profession got it badly wrong

Modern medicine underpins the health of most of the people on earth and it works well a lot of the time. We have beaten or eliminated many of the deadly diseases and afflictions that blighted mankind for centuries – polio, the plague, smallpox and hook worm are three examples – but sometimes the medical profession doesn’t get it right.

And when they do get something wrong it can have deadly, long-running consequences. This is because we put our trust in doctors and scientists as people in authoritative positions. We assume that they know how to fix our medical issue because that’s their job, so we will often simply accept what we’re told by the person in-front of us during a consultation or intervention.

Pursuing courses of treatment that don’t work much beyond placebo is potentially harmful, particularly in the field of mental health, because it doesn’t address the root cause of the overall problem and it can lead to the subject feeling worse than before as they lose agency over their lives with every failed treatment.

We’re not saying that you shouldn’t trust what a doctor tells you – far from it, they get lots of things right a majority of the time – but we are suggesting that sometimes exploring alternatives and being able to weigh the evidence for and against a treatment option is often a good idea.

If you still need convincing, here are five things the medical profession have got badly wrong in recent times…

1 SSRI ANTI-DEPRESSANTS

A severe lack of mental health training or knowledge has left many people relying on medication to manage their mental health, which wouldn’t be so bad if the drugs prescribed had a good track record of helping people over their issues. Spoiler: most don’t.

Prescriptions for anti-depressants have sky-rocketed in recent years – but there are serious questions about their effectiveness

One family of drugs in particular is worth discussion – SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. After being heralded as wonder drugs in the 1990s, it was found that drug companies had massaged study results to produce favourable outcomes and, thus, sell more drugs to people with mental health issues.

Overall, studies have shown that SSRI’s like Paxil and Prozac are no more effective in treating depression than a placebo pill. That means they are 33 per cent effective, which is the percent of patients who will respond well to a sugar pill.

For people with mental health issues, taking ineffective medication is deeply unhelpful in aiding recovery because it relinquishes power of their illness to the drug. The patient feels helpless when they have to resort to drugs to help them, and even more so when they don’t work. And then there are the unpleasant physical side-effects.

Undoubtedly, use of these drugs has been a factor in many deaths worldwide as people exhaust a series of poorly-evidenced mental health treatments until the only thing left is to take their own life.

2 MEDICAL IMPLANTS

Hacking our own bodies sounds very sci-fi but the fact is that we’ve been doing this for a while in the form of implants that serve various purposes – usually pacemakers or drug-release devices.

But medical implants hit the news recently when serious flaws were found in the way devices like pacemakers are tested and then positioned as being medically sound. In the most recent example, a particular brand of pacemaker was approved by ‘shopping around’ the various approval systems used to recognise medical devices until it passed. Since being declared ‘safe’, it’s caused deaths and severe physical discomfort for many.

The problem is massive with millions of medical implant devices, ranging from vaginal mesh implants to pacemakers, under suspicion for being approved for use in the face of evidence to the contrary. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists were so concerned, they’ve managed an international campaign on the issue.

PIP implants contained non-approved silicon that caused serious health issues when the devices ruptured.

Related to this category are breast implants, and many will remember the recent scandal regarding French-made PIP implants being withdrawn from the UK in 2010 after it was found they had been fraudulently manufactured, and were far more prone to splitting (rupturing) than other breast implants. 

The scandal came about when PIP implants were made with gel made from a cheaper, industrial-grade silicone (that wasn’t approved for medical use) and were rupturing at a rate of double the industry average.

When compromised, the silicone gel was known to cause inflammation and possible scarring, and these implants continue to raise questions over the possibility of other harmful long-term effects.

CONTAMINATED BLOOD SCANDAL

In the 1970s and 80s, 4,689 haemophiliacs became infected with Hepatitis C and HIV after they were treated with contaminated blood products supplied by the NHS. Of those infected, 2,883 have since died (some from HIV/Aids, and some from the effects of Hep C which include cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, or liver transplants). The Government ordered a public enquiry into contaminated blood in July 2017 after allegations that evidence was covered up or ignored.

Contaminated blood contained hidden dangers

Haemophilia is a genetic condition that causes a lack of the essential blood-clotting protein known as factor VIII, so even a small injury can result in dramatic blood loss. In the 60s, a frozen blood product called cryoprecipitate was introduced, which could stop bleeding. But this could be administered only via transfusion, in hospital, and because it was produced from a small number of donors, it was always in short supply.

But in the 70s, a major breakthrough in the mass production of freeze-dried factor concentrates, made by distilling the plasma of large groups of donors, meant haemophiliacs could now live normal lives. When a cut or bruising led to bleeding, they could simply take a bottle containing factor VIII out of the fridge, inject themselves, and their blood would start clotting.

But the miraculous new treatment carried hidden dangers. British laboratories were unable to keep up with demand and in 1973 the government started buying cheap blood products from American drug companies. Much of the blood sold to British hospitals came from prisons in Arkansas, where a high number of inmates were infected with hepatitis and HIV. Whereas in the UK blood was given on a voluntary basis, in the US donors were paid for it, including prisoners. 

Many of those who most needed the money led chaotic lives and were likely to have infected blood – drug addicts, sex workers or alcoholics, all of whom were at risk of contracting blood-borne diseases. A single batch of factor VIII would include blood from up to 20,000 donors. If only one donor was infected, the whole batch could be contaminated. In the early 90s, pharmaceutical companies began to produce synthesised factor products in labs, which prevented nearly all forms of disease transmission. But by then the damage had been done.

THALIDOMIDE 

Thalidomide was used in the late 1950s and early 1960s to combat morning sickness, but led to children being born without limbs.   

The drug was invented in 1953 in Germany by the Grünenthal Group, and was first licensed for use in the UK in 1958. Three years later (1961), an Australian doctor, William McBride, wrote to the Lancet medical journal after noticing an increase in the number of deformed babies born at his hospital, all to mothers who had taken thalidomide. The drug was withdrawn later the same year.

Thalidomide had a number of dangerous side-effects for expectant mothers

The UK manufacturer Distillers Biochemicals Ltd (now Diageo) eventually paid out a compensation settlement of £28m in the UK in the 1970s for affected families. Payment amounts have been increased on a number of occasions in recent years.

A number of scandals have been seen in African countries including Kenya in the early 2000’s, where it was discovered that thalidomide was being used in the treatment of leprosy and aids (sometimes on pregnant  mothers). 

In 2007, a study showed that the drug is beneficial to bone-marrow transplant cancer patients, and in 2008 the drug was approved for the treatment of multiple myeloma by the European Medicines Agency.

In 2009, scientists at the University of Aberdeen claimed they had finally solved the “50-year puzzle” after discovering exactly how thalidomide causes limb defects. They found that a component of the drug prevented the growth of new blood vessels in developing embryos, stunting limb growth. The government agreed to pay a £20m grant to the Thalidomide Trust over three years, after a campaign by the Sunday Times.

5 COCAINE

Between 1860 and 1900, doctors and medical ‘experts’ routinely prescribed cocaine and considered it a go-to wonder drug for a range of ailments, from eye problems to cancer. Press adverts helped cement the idea that this was safe and as normal as cough drops with lines like “Coca wine will make a new man or woman of you. Invigorates and stimulates the brain, muscles, nerves, stomach, and heart.”

A typical advert for medical cocaine

Obviously we know now that this rubbish and that cocaine is not safe or a good option for treating anything, but prevailing wisdom a hundred years ago said otherwise.

If you want an example of how far we have come in our understanding of effective medical treatments and approving safe options for patients, look no further than this advert for cocaine tooth ache drops.

Never, in your wildest nightmare would you give your child or friend cocaine for a sore tooth – so would you give them anti-depressants (top of our list)?