Blog archive: Sept. 2003

Blog subjects:

  • Pseudoscience in the mental-health industry

  • Unethical behavior among pharmaceutical companies

  • Whatever else strikes my fancy

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Note:  Blog updates occur sporadically.  I'm just too busy to maintain a schedule of daily entries.  Thanks for understanding.

Saturday, September 27, 2003

This is some very scary stuff:

Drug implant offers hope, spurs worry

Researchers said yesterday that they are prepared to seek FDA approval of a surgically implanted tablet that could deliver daily doses of psychiatric medication for as long as a year.

The implants might revolutionize treatment of chronic mental illnesses like schizophrenia, which now require patients to take daily cocktails of powerful medications.

For some, the implant of haloperidol, a powerful antipsychotic drug, promises to stop the destructive spirals of psychosis that occur when patients stop taking medication because of side effects, logistical barriers, or lapses in memory.  But patients' rights advocates say that implants of psychiatric medication would give the state coercive power unmatched since the age of the lobotomy.

This would be scary even if psychotropic drugs worked (which they don't).

Thursday, September 25, 2003

The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant has a very interesting article that exposes the collusion that can happen between Big Pharma and the government officials who are allegedly regulating the industry.  If the site prompts you to enter a username and password, “bselig” (minus the quotes) should work for both.  Thanks go out to blog-reader Fred for providing this reference:

Memos Display Drug Firms' Optimism

Officials Were Confident FDA Would Back Them On Suicide, Violence Issues Involving Paxil, Prozac

When federal regulators recently warned that the antidepressant Paxil may increase the risk of suicide in children, they stunned the medical community and left thousands of parents wondering whether their children had been exposed to an unsafe drug.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision also brought legitimacy to the courtroom arguments of some patients and their families, who have said for a decade that Paxil, and other antidepressants such as Prozac, can lead to unexplained violent behavior, including suicide.

Those court filings, some of which have been sealed through the efforts of pharmaceutical industry lawyers, contain internal memos that reveal manufacturers were sure they had the support of FDA scientists investigating the drugs' safety in the early 1990s – long before all the studies on suicide and violence were complete.

While those early studies on Paxil and Prozac did not provide the FDA with reason to stop the approval process, the memos offer a rare glimpse into the discussions between federal regulators and the companies whose drugs they were charged with investigating.

In October 1990, for instance, Thomas Donnelly, an executive from Paxil's maker, SmithKline Beecham, circulated a memo recounting a telephone conversation with the FDA official performing the government's study of the drug's safety.  That official, Dr. Martin Brecher, asked Donnelly to produce data on a potential link between Paxil and suicidal thoughts or actions among patients.

Donnelly wrote in the memo to his fellow SmithKline executives that Brecher and the FDA did not “see it as a real issue” and instead considered the concerns a “public relations problem” for the antidepressant drug makers.  The memo was written before the data had been reviewed.


In a stunning new development, British researchers have revealed that astrology is a load of hooey:

Astrologers fail to predict proof they are wrong

Good news for rational, level-headed Virgoans everywhere:  just as you might have predicted, scientists have found astrology to be rubbish.

Its central claim – that our human characteristics are moulded by the influence of the Sun, Moon and planets at the time of our birth – appears to have been debunked once and for all and beyond doubt by the most thorough scientific study ever made into it.  [...]

Dr Dean said the consistency of the findings weighed heavily against astrology.

“It has no acceptable mechanism, its principles are invalid and it has failed hundreds of tests,” he said.  “But no hint of these problems will be found in astrology books which, in effect, are exercises in deception.”

Of course, this article will never dissuade the true believers, who are largely immune to rational arguments, evidence, or logic.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

More ridiculousness from the anti-drug industry:

Anti-Drug Pitch Goes Wide

When Congress launched the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign five years ago, it explicitly tied future funding to hard evidence of success.  Today, there is anything but that.  [...]

The media campaign's concerns have often been legitimate.  It is quite reasonably trying to reach the one in six high school seniors in the United States who report driving under the influence of pot, more than half of whom say, alarmingly, that being stoned does not compromise their driving ability.  However, the way in which the campaign has tried to get its messages across is stodgy and unlikely to connect with kids.

Drug czar John P. Walters has mismanaged the media campaign in other ways – using taxpayer dollars to directly attack state medical marijuana programs and ballot initiatives, for instance.

This spring, Walters boasted to Congress about a study conducted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (which, in a blatant conflict of interest, helps produce the campaign's ads).  The “good news,” he said, was the study's conclusion that “40% of teens said that anti-drug advertising made them less likely to try or use drugs.”

A more independent study released by the University of Pennsylvania this year not only found “no evidence of a positive effect,” it concluded that teens who saw the ads “tended to move more markedly in a 'pro-drug' direction in their attitudes over time.“

Sermons to teens can often have a boomerang effect, leading them to dismiss the real dangers the sermons are railing against.  That, however, is not the lesson Walters took home from the Pennsylvania study.  When its skeptical results came in, he opted not to renew the university's contract.  Turning a blind eye to unwelcome facts is no way to run an effective anti-drug campaign.

I am in no way suggesting that drug abuse isn't a huge problem, but let's not be stupid in the way we try to address the issue, shall we?


National Public Radio (NPR) is running a series on mental illness in children.  I caught the first story on the radio this morning while I was driving to work.  It was sort of interesting, but not skeptical enough for my taste.


Monday, September 22, 2003

Hah, so the Dalai Lama has a dark side.  I never did trust the guy:

The Dalai Lama has become whoever we want him to be, a cuddly projection of our hopes and dreams.  This enthusiasm, though, has not translated into any tangible political benefit for Tibetans.  He has been seen on advertisements for Apple computers and SalesForce.com software; significantly, he was not paid for either of these uses of his image.  Some of the books that purport to be written by the Dalai Lama are scarcely by him at all, but have his face on the cover to increase sales.

In reality, Tibetan Buddhism is not a values-free system oriented around smiles and a warm heart.  It is a religion with tough ethical underpinnings that sometimes get lost in translation.  For example, the Dalai Lama explicitly condemns homosexuality, as well as all oral and anal sex.  His stand is close to that of Pope John Paul II, something his Western followers find embarrassing and prefer to ignore.  His American publisher even asked him to remove the injunctions against homosexuality from his book, “Ethics for the New Millennium,” for fear they would offend American readers, and the Dalai Lama acquiesced.

When he is speaking to his own people, the Dalai Lama is very different from the genial figure we see in the West.  I remember a public talk he gave at his headquarters in Dharamsala in northern India in 1990, after conflict between Tibetans and Indians there.  He spoke in Tibetan, and his delivery was stern and admonitory, like a forbidding, old-fashioned father reprimanding his children.  The crowd listened respectfully, and went away chastened.

And there's more:

The Dalai Lama – spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, premier advocate of nonviolence, Nobel Peace Prize winner – said that violence may be necessary in the fight against terrorism and that it's “too early to say” whether the war against Iraq was wrong.

“Terrorism is the worst kind of violence, so we have to check it, we have to take countermeasures,” he said during a visit to New York City.  As to Iraq, he said, “I feel only history will tell.“

Actually, the quotes from the second article above seem more or less reasonable, but they just don't sound like something you might expect the Dalai Lama to say.


Interesting article about pharmaceutical regulation in Britain:

Watchdog bans 14 prescription drugs over fear of multiple deaths

Britain's drug watchdog has been forced to ban the use of 14 prescription drugs in the last five years after they were suspected of killing hundreds of people in the UK or harming thousands through serious side effects.

Official figures released for the first time highlight the growing number of controversial decisions made by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which gave the green light to the drugs in the first place.  In some cases, concerns about the drugs' safety records were already known.

Last week the MHRA released data to The Observer confirming that the 14 drugs it has banned since 1997 have been cited as a possible cause in at least 71 deaths in Britain and more than 3,000 injuries.  Because these 'adverse' incidents are only reported on a voluntary basis by a hospital or doctor, experts believe the true number of people killed by these drugs probably runs into several hundreds, with thousands more injured.

The disclosure of these figures will put further pressure on the agency, which was forced on Friday to announce a ban on the anti-depressant Efexor for children and adolescents with depression.  The move came within months of a ban on under-18s taking another anti-depressant, Seroxat, after concerns that it increased the risk of suicide.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

The BBC reports on the problems with Effexor (spelled with one "f" in the UK):

Teens warned over anti-depressant

Children under the age of 18 should not take the anti-depressant drug Efexor, government experts have said.  [...]

The group said that under 18s on this drug were at an increased risk of becoming hostile or thinking about committing suicide or self harm.

They were also more likely to suffer side effects like abdominal pain, loss of appetite and weight loss.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Good news out of Connecticut:

State stops giving Effexor to children under DCF care

HARTFORD, Conn. – The state Department of Children and Families will no longer give children in its care the anti-depressant drug Effexor because of a possible link to increased suicide rates.

DCF has also discontinued the use of Paxil, another anti-depressant, because of warnings by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about a similar link to suicides.  [...]

Clinical trials done by the drugs' manufacturers at the request of the FDA suggest that neither Paxil nor Effexor is particularly effective in treating teenage depression and that both drugs might lead to increased hostility and thoughts of suicide.

The article makes it sound like the drugs might be effective for adults, as opposed to children.  However, there is considerable reason to doubt the effectiveness of antidepressants for anyone, regardless of age.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

I really think it's time for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to start cracking-down on herbalists, aromatherapists, rolfers, reiki “masters” and other practitioners of so-called “alternative medicine”.  These charlatans have had a free ride for too long.  Actually, to be fair, I think many of them believe their own claims, so perhaps “charlatan” isn't exactly the right word.  So what's the right word, then?  I dunno... maybe “delusional person”.  I don't see why the FDA should attempt to regulate the prescription-drug industry while at the same time doing little to combat the false and irrational claims of the “holistic” crowd.  Here's the latest debunking of the medical fringe:

Medical Journal Questions Herbal Remedies

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The editor of a leading U.S. medical journal called on Tuesday for tighter regulation of herbal remedies because of “potentially misleading“ health claims made by distributors of the products.

“Because many dietary supplements have or promote biological activity, they must be considered active drugs and regulated as such,” wrote Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.  [...]

“The study... provides evidence for the easily accessible and widespread potentially misleading claims made by vendors of herbal products on the Internet,” DeAngelis wrote in her editorial.

And in a related story:

For Foot Pain, Forget Magnets, It Seems

Magnets do not relieve pain, and money spent on magnetic shoe inserts to relieve foot aches would be better spent on more comfortable shoes, a study has concluded. Americans spend $500 million annually on magnetized health products, and believers say wearing them next to painful body parts may increase blood flow or change the way nerves transmit pain. But Dr. Mark Winemiller of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., the report's author, said a study of 100 people with plantar fasciitis, a common cause of heel pain, found no difference in discomfort whether or not shoe inserts contained a magnet. The study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Sorry about the lack of updates lately.  Busy, busy, busy.  Here's some humor, courtesy of a semi-anonymous blog-reader:

Babies: 100 percent suffer from depression

Rockville, Mary. -- A study conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) reports that... 100 percent of all newborn infants display symptoms normally associated with clinical adult depression and in fact suffer from a medical condition known as Infant Depressive Disorder (IDD).

“A baby suffering from Infant Depressive Disorder will exhibit many of the same warning signs as depressed adults: frequent bouts of crying, weight gain, disrupted sleep patterns and so on,” said Dr. James Redab, who headed up NICHD's three-year study.  “Parents, do not dismiss your infant's behavior and assume that the little one is just tired or fussing.  The infant without question requires immediate medication, psychotherapy and quite possibly electroconvulsive therapy.  Your baby needs to get well.”

Between July of 2000 and July of 2003, NICHD researchers examined an internationally representative sample of 11,000 infants, reporting that in all 11,000 cases the newborn exhibited various physical signs of depression – from irritability to difficulty making decisions to abrupt mood swings.

“As a parent, once you know the signs of IDD and know what to look for, it'll become very obvious to you that your baby has depression,” said Redab.  “And although it's a huge blow to come to the realization that your child has this serious of a medical condition at such a young age, you'll be relieved to finally know why your baby has been crying nonstop and just laying around, practically lifeless, for weeks if not months.”

Friday, September 5, 2003

More bad news for the business of selling antidepressants:

2nd Firm Warns Against Having Kids Take Its Drug

For the second time in the past two months, a pharmaceutical company is warning that an anti-depressant drug should not be prescribed to children because it may cause suicidal thoughts or self-harm.

Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Inc., based in New Jersey, has sent a letter to health care professionals across the country warning of possible problems with giving Effexor to children.

In a two-page letter dated Aug. 22, Dr. Victoria Kusiak, Wyeth's vice president for global medical affairs, warned that in recent clinical trials Effexor was not effective in treating depression or anxiety and that there were increased “reports of hostility and especially in Major Depressive Disorder, suicide-related adverse events such as suicidal ideation and self-harm.”

In June, British drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline sent letters to doctors in Britain and Ireland warning of a similar concern with its well-known anti-depressant, Paxil.  Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration then advised American doctors not to prescribe Paxil for children, citing unpublished studies done by Glaxo indicating that the drug increases suicidal thinking among adolescents.

Effexor is used to treat depression and bipolar disorder and is similar to Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft.


Excellent article in the Toronto Star:

Build a disease;  they'll buy the pill

Marketing to the 'drug culture'
Canny advertising boosts sales

[...]  There are hundreds of potentially dangerous new wonder drugs waiting in the wings, from the anti-acne drug Accutane, which comes with a warning about its propensity to promote suicide in its teenage users, to Viagra, which scientific studies have shown can cause deadly heart complications in some of its users.

Both drugs entered the market with more fanfare than scientific study.

“Science is used to support what the marketers want,” said Alan Cassels, a researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  [...]

“Marketing is triumphing over sound medical science,” [agreed] Canadian Women's Health Network spokesperson Kathleen O'Grady.

New evidence is emerging to suggest that Paxil, the top-selling anti-depressant, may be at best no more effective than a sugar pill.

At the worst, Paxil, may actually contribute to suicide attempts.

The drug was recently banned in Canada, the U.S. and Britain for use in children, but is still widely used in adults who suffer anything from “social anxiety disorder,” the medicalized term for shyness, to severe depression.


Wednesday, September 3, 2003

This blog is now over a year old.  There were a few times when I was going to stop writing it altogether, but I persisted (sometimes with fairly long gaps in between updates).  Thanks go out to the people who have sent interesting and/or supportive e-mails, or posted messages on the discussion board.  I can't abandon this blog, as long as the general public continues to exhibit so little skepticism toward the mental-health industry.


Yet another reason not to use antipsychotic drugs, as reported by the New York Times:

Pancreatitis Risk Seen in Schizophrenia Drugs

Researchers reported yesterday that there may be a link between some newer drugs prescribed for schizophrenia and a dangerous inflammation of the pancreas.

The study, which looked at patients taking any of four antipsychotic drugs, examined all cases of pancreatitis that were reported to the Food and Drug Administration or written up in medical journals between January 1981 and February 2002.  It found that more cases were associated with three newer drugs than with an older generation drug.

Of the 192 cases of pancreatitis the researchers found, 72 occurred in patients taking Clozaril, made by Novartis, 62 in patients taking Zyprexa, made by Eli Lilly, and 31 in patients taking Risperdal, made by Jannsen Pharmaceutica.  These drugs are members of the newer generation of antipsychotics known as atypicals.

Twelve cases occurred among patients who took Haldol, the older drug. The remaining 15 patients took more than one antipsychotic drug.

Twenty-two of the patients with pancreatitis died, the study found.  Most of the cases developed within six months of when the patients began taking the drugs.


Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Read this harrowing account of a six-year-old boy caught in the clutches of the mental-health industry:

Saving Isaiah:  A boy's voyage through inpatient psychiatric care

By Kathleen Chapman, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2003

The state of Florida locked away Isaiah White 11 months ago.

They confined him in a place they call the “quiet room.”

They held him down and injected him with powerful drugs.

They forced him into full-body restraints as he wriggled on the floor.

He was 6 years old.

While living at Sandy Pines hospital in Tequesta last fall, Isaiah lost his first baby tooth.  He practiced adding small numbers and played CandyLand.  He waited for Santa.

When he was bad, staffers confiscated his toys and upped his dose of antipsychotic medications, most of which have not been tested for use in children.

Officials at the state Department of Children and Families, who help run the state's mental health programs, say psychiatrists are cautious when prescribing drugs.  They say they want children to live with families, not in psychiatric wards.  They say they do not want to institutionalize any child.

But for nearly a year, Isaiah has lived in facilities for the state's most disturbed children and teenagers.

In December, three months after the state committed Isaiah to Sandy Pines, a DCF inspector came to look at 11 bruises on his arms and legs.

“Some are from playing outside,” he said, “and some are from being taken down.”

In March, Sandy Pines officials acknowledged they had not helped the boy.  DCF transferred him to a psychiatric group home in Broward County, where he remains.  He celebrated his seventh birthday last month.

The state has billed Medicaid more than $100,000 for his treatment.

Child advocates are alarmed by Isaiah's case.  Why, they ask, did the state treat a frightened first-grader like a psychotic adult?  Is there no better way to discipline a 75-pound child?

“There is something seriously wrong with our mental health system,” said Gerard Glynn, executive director of Florida's Children First, a coalition that represents children in state custody.  “It is appalling....  I cannot understand, in a civilized society, locking up a 6-year-old child.  Period.”


A group of people in Pasadena are starving themselves to make a point about harmful and pseudoscientific practices in psychiatry.  I'm all in favor of trying to reform the mental-health industry, but I don't think that engaging in hunger-strikes is really the best strategy to pursue.  These kinds of extreme measures are only going to alienate people who are “sitting on the fence”.  Still, I respect the dedication of the people who are fasting.  Also, they've been able to attract some media attention, which I didn't think was going to happen.  Here's an article from the Washington Post (thanks go out to blog-reader Fred for sending me this reference):

Raising Doubts About Drugs

Calif. Hunger Strike Challenges Use of Antidepressants

PASADENA, Calif., Aug. 29 – After two weeks, four mental health advocates are still on a hunger strike, protesting the widespread use of prescription drugs to treat mental illnesses and challenging psychiatrists to document their rationale for prescribing them.  [...]

The strikers are calling on some of the strongest voices in the psychiatric profession, including the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, to provide concrete evidence that mental illnesses are the result of brain chemistry imbalances.  They also want to call attention to alternative treatments.