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Thursday, November 15, 2012

The medicine you do not need

Close friends and family of mine live in the world of alternative medicine. They believe and practice homeopathy, all kinds of massages that use bio energy, they take drugs made from plants and use all sorts of essences and stuff like that. I, on the other hand, live in the world of provable science, double blind studies and technology. And yet, after resisting the influence of my peers for so long, there are three stories which, ironically, are from the world of scientific (OK, let's call it commercial) medicine, which make me doubt the validity of my faith in it.

First of all there is a TED talk which I embed here.

This guy, Ben Goldacre, tells the story of experiments that form the basis of our medical beliefs and of the drugs and methods doctors prescribe to patients. As an example, from 53 published experiments on cancer, 47 were NOT replicable. That means only 6% of them were. Why is that? Because scientific papers are being published with overwhelming bias if they present positive results. Therefore if I make 2 experiments and one of them shows success, it is more likely to be the only published. So for everyone reading scientific papers it would appear I was successful 100% of the time.

The second story is slightly related to the first, since the wonderdrug Tamiflu was also mentioned in the above talk. Here is Peter Gotzsche, leader of the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen, wondering why Roche, the firm that created Tamiflu and made billions on the bird and porcine flu scares, did not release any of the relevant data on the workings of the drug for over three years now. One might argue that the tonnes of Tamiflu stockpiled by different governments could be completely useless.

But the third story is truly baffling. NewScientist published this article that says two recent studies have shown that beta-blockers, a type of drug used for over 40 years for treating heart problems, has NO effect. It works by blocking the effects of adrenalin and noradrenalin and, it was believed, it helped minimize the risk of heart attack. Apparently, they don't.

So, when I read these stories in no more than a month, how can I trust anything in the world of medicine? It is a highly lucrative business and it was to be expected to be filled with corruption and misdirection, but never have I thought that its basic functionality could be affected. Entering a drug store, I see that the shelves are filled with useless dietary supplements in colorful boxes and bottles, but I always assume that the drugs I get for specific ailments or by name are the real deal, that what is written on the label and prospect is correct. I also feel that people that die or suffer because they chose the wrong kind of medicine do so in a sort of natural selection; I just didn't believe that one of those people could be me.

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