30 January 2008

My dad always said, don't take medicine if you can stand the pain. Maybe he's right

The pharmaceutical industry these days has so much to worry about. If it's not the threat posed by the universal healthcare plans that could potentially be implemented by the Clinton/Obama/[?] administration in the near future, and it's not increased exposure of scandals involving doctors being paid off to promote and prescribe drugs and biomedical devices...then it's faulty and counterfeit drugs. Lots of them.

The front page article of the New York Times today features a new uncovering of faulty drugs being made in--surprise?--China and being administered to unwitting patients. The worst part? The drug is ordinarily used to treat leukemia patients, and impurities in the drug manufactured by Shanghai Hualian are causing leg pain and paralysis. Apparently, another drug, vincristine sulfate (which inhibits formation of the mitotic spindle--and thus cell division) was being stored in the same refrigerator as a bunch of other drugs, and managed to contaminate them all. The problem was that vincristine sulfate is too strong to be administered by injection into the spine, which is how they were injecting the other leukemia drug.

This case was a real drug being manufactured by a real, certified company. But what about all of the counterfeit drugs? In my class on contemporary China we've been talking a lot about the economic benefits of Special Economic Zones like Shenzhen. It turns out that these free trade zones are one of the main problems in the counterfeit drug trade. Drugs are being shipped through places like the Euro Gulf Trading area in Dubai and aren't being double-checked by customs officials. These drugs go to places like Panama, where hundreds of people were killed recently by cough medicine tainted by diethylene glycol, and the Bahamas.

This problem is in the hands of the FDA and other national agencies that regulate the production and distribution of drugs. But what we really need now is some kind of international organization to bridge the disconnect between global trade and regionalized regulations. Or would this cause too many problems, having to decide on a set of rules that every country could abide by in terms of manufacturing and distributing drugs? I'm not sure, but it's a major problem when you can't even trust the drugs that your doctor tells you to take because you're afraid they might have a financial incentive for prescribing the drug to you, and when you hesitate before you take your Robitussin cough syrup because you're not sure if there's antifreeze in it.

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