Recently, you may have heard of the British family whose 9-year-old daughter died from chickenpox after being given steroids to treat a relatively minor eye problem (see Case Study, p 10).
They were never warned about the long-known dangers of steroids. The case got me livid not only for the stupid, unnecessary loss of a gifted child and the pain visited upon her family, but also because it points up the real problem with drugs.
Drug companies do much that is worthy of criticism, and far be it from me to shrink from that task but, increasingly, we find that the problem is not non-disclosure of side effects by the drug companies. American law in particular forces drug companies to disclose so much about what their product can do to people that individual entries in the Physicians’ Desk Reference are often filled with all manner of quirk findings.
The problem is that many practitioners appear ignorant of the most basic effects of powerful drugs, information clearly in their drugs reference books. The sort of side effects associated with steroids go on for pages in the Physicians’ Desk Reference and at least a page in the Datasheet Compendium. They warn that prednisolone can ’cause profound and varied metabolic effects… and modify the body’s immune response to diverse stimuli.’
In its entry in the Datasheet, Pfizer says of its proprietary product Detacortril, ‘the appropriate individual dose must be determined by trial and error and must be reevaluated regularly. . .’ It suggests that children may receive appropriate fractions of the ‘actual dose’ and that ‘treatment should be limited to the minimum dosage for the shortest possible time.’ The first contraindication is any ‘systemic infection’. In America, the PDR warns against vaccinating a child with chickenpox vaccine or anything else because of a ‘lack of antibody response’. Furthermore, it warns that there may be increased resistance and inability to localize infection. That is about as close as a drug company gets to saying that their product can switch off the immune system.
If all this is known, why wasn’t this child’s dosage modified when she reacted so poorly to it? Why wasn’t she being given tests to check her body’s response to this enormous daily assault? Why was she allowed to go to school among her germ-laden peers, when catching any minor disease could be fatal?
Didn’t the doctor know this? If he did, why was none of this communicated to the parents before he initiated treatment? With thousands of drugs on the market and doctors not required to have extensive training in pharmacology, it’s small wonder that they often demonstrate a fatal lack of knowledge or appreciation of exactly what these substances can do to you.
The lesson to be learned here is that it’s not enough to ask the right questions. This little girl’s parents did ask and they weren’t told the truth. Their heartbreak highlights the need to become your own expert before you follow doctor’s orders. Assume, for your own safety, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.