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Seven Diseases Big Pharma Hopes You Get in 2012

Supply-driven marketing not only turns the nation into pill-popping hypochondriacs, it distracts from Pharma's drought of real drugs for real medical problems.

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A Shire ad in Northwestern University's student paper this year takes the issue head on. "I remember being the kid with ADHD. Truth is, I still have it," says the headline splashed across a photo of Adam Levine, the lead singer of Maroon 5. "It's Your ADHD. Own It," was the tagline. (Was "Stay Sick" the runner-up?)

Of course, pushing speed on college kids (or anyone, for that matter) isn't too hard. Why else do meth dealers say, "First taste free"? But Pharma is so eager to retain its pediatric ADHD market, it has funded for-credit courses for doctors, such as "Identifying, Diagnosing, and Managing ADHD in College Students" and "ADHD in College: Seeking and Receiving Care During the Transition From Child to Adult."

To make sure no one thinks ADHD is a made-up disease, WebMD shows color-enhanced Pet scans of the brains of a normal person and an ADHD sufferer (flanked by an ad for Vyvanse). But it is doubtful the scans are really different, says psychiatrist Dr. Phillip Sinaikin, author of Psychiatryland. And even if they are, it proves nothing.

"The crux of the matter is that there is simply no definitive understanding of how neuronal activity is related to subjective consciousness, the age-old unsolved body/mind relationship," Sinaikin told AlterNet. "We have not advanced beyond phrenology, and this article in WebMD is simply the worst kind of manipulation by the drug industry to sell their overpriced products, in this case a desperate effort by Shire to maintain a market share when Adderall goes generic."

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a serious and dangerous disease. But so are Pharma's immune-suppressing biologic drugs like Remicade, Enbrel, and Humira, which are pushed to treat it. While RA attacks the body's own tissues, leading to inflammation of the joints, surrounding tissues, and organs, immune suppressors can invite cancers, lethal infections, and activate TB.

In 2008, the FDA announced that 45 people on Humira, Enbrel, Remicade, and Cimzia died from fungal diseases, and investigated Humira's links to lymphoma, leukemia, and melanoma in children. This year, the FDA warned that the drugs can cause "a rare cancer of white blood cells" in young people, and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) warned of "potentially fatal Legionella and Listeria infections."

Immune-suppressing drugs are also dangerous to the pocketbook. One injection of Remicade costs up to $2,500; a month's supply of Enbrel costs $1,500; and a year's supply of Humira costs up to $20,000.

Once upon a time, RA was diagnosed from the presence of "rheumatoid factor" and inflammation. But, thanks to Pharma's supply-driven marketing, stiffness and pain are all that are required for the diagnosis today. (Athletes and people born before 1970 — line forms to the left!)

In addition to diagnostic wiggle room and a catchy name, RA has other blockbuster disease requirements. It  will "only get worse" if untreated, says WebMD, and it is often "misdiagnosed" and underreported, says Abbott's Heather Mason, because "people often don't know what they have for a while."

So serious a disease, it costs over $20,000 a year to treat but so subtle you may not know you have it? RA sounds like a blockbuster.

Fibromyalgia

Another underreported disease is fibromyalgia, characterized by widespread. unexplained bodily pain. Fibromyalgia is "almost a textbook definition of an unmet medical need," says Ian Read of Pfizer, which makes the first drug to be approved for fibromyalgia, the seizure pill Lyrica. Pfizer gave nonprofit groups $2.1 million in 2008 to "educate" doctors about fibromyalgia and financed PSAs (pharma service announcements) depicting sufferers describing their symptoms without mentioning a drug. Lyrica now makes $3 billion a year.

 
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