Bad Medicine

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

<b>Just say no. Hormones can be harmful to your health<b>

A much ballyhooed U.S. research trial in which healthy women were given hormonal treatment meant to protect them from a range of diseases came to an abrupt halt in early July when data showed the medication to be harmful, not helpful.

In fact, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) touted as a “magic bullet” to prevent heart disease for millions of women actually seems to have caused it in previously healthy Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) participants. The U.S.-based WHI, which began in 1991, comprises several, mostly drug-based studies of over 150,000 healthy, post-menopausal women that seek to determine whether hormone use will prevent heart disease, osteoporosis, colorectal cancer and breast cancer.

Adding to the wounds from this ricocheting bullet is evidence that long-term use of HRT may also increase the risk of invasive breast cancer, stroke and blood clots — a high price to pay for the possible relief of menopausal symptoms, especially when symptoms are mild for most women and other options for relief are available.

While apparent decreases in hip fractures and colorectal cancer among study participants are two possibly positive outcomes of HRT, good nutrition and physical activity are low-tech, safe alternatives for protecting against the same.

Women’s groups in the U.S. can take credit for initiating the WHI research over a decade ago. Women’s health advocates, concerned by the increasing medicalization of women’slives and by physicians’ tendency to push “pills for prevention” (of everything from hot flashes to memory lapses), pressured the government to fund the WHI. They believed that federally-funded research was the only way to get results not tainted by pharmaceutical company interests, and they argued that this unbiased information was what women needed if they were to make informed decisions about their health.

Without the intervention of the U.S. National Women’s Health Network and others, millions more would be getting prescriptions for HRT merely due to what the Network has called the “triumph of marketing over science.” Drug companies have been spending billions in ads to doctors in Canada and the U.S., and to the American public, lauding the wondrouseffects of HRT.

Now we know that HRT was, as many women’s health advocates suspected all along, no cure-all. But beyond the clear health message of the WHI study results — don’t use estrogen/progestin to prevent chronic disease — there is a broader lesson: Pills for healthy people can be dangerous! And the burgeoning advertisements and other marketing activities of pharmaceutical companies are serious, potentially lethal, threats to our well-being.

We know this from past experience. Take DES (diethylstilbestrol), a hormone heavily prescribed in the 40s, 50s and 60s for women thought to be at risk of miscarrying. The drug led to severe damage to the women’s children about which we are still learning. (DES was advertised in major medical journals in the 50s with text that read: “Recommended for routine prophylaxis in ALL pregnancies... Bigger and stronger babies.... No gastric or other side effects...”)

And we continue to use drugs whose long-term safety has not been proven. Today, tamoxifen is recommended to healthy women for breast cancer prevention, even though we still don’t know the full effects and potential harms of the drug.

Drug company marketing sets women up as “at risk” and in need of intervention. Women succumb to these manufactured fears, and their doctors do, too. Multinational pharmaceutical companies spend billions hawking their wares, over $16 billion U.S. in the States last year alone. Their influence spreads to the content of research, medical journals, continuing education programs and professional conferences.

While much of this marketing expenditure comes in the guise of “medical education,” particularly in Canada where advertising drugs directly to consumers is illegal, marketing’s main purpose is to sell drugs, not to provide education. Drug companies are first and foremost big business.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the stock market responded to the WHI study results even faster than physicians did. Within hours of halting of the study, shares of Wyeth, the company that makes the drug used in the study (a drug that generated over $2 billion U.S. in sales in 2001), fell 19 per cent.

Drug company execs and public relations crews initiated rescue procedures immediately, arguing that other drugs would fill the corporate profit gaps. It was, after all, the combination of estrogen and progestin that rang alarm bells; still under study was estrogen alone!

It is time to turn from the lure of a drug fix and the lore of pills for prevention and to ensure instead that pharmaceutical companies aren’t setting the health agenda. Large doses of community resources available to all, healthy food and workplaces, and socially and physically active lives are well-established ways to promote health and prevent disease. These may not mint billions for drug companies but, in the words of a current women’s health campaign, they do “put people first.”

Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.