Adventures in Ethical Consumerism

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Follow the money

This story from the What Doctors Don't Tell You e-News Broadcast (20 Jan '05) is a good example of what bothers me about the vast array of pharmaceutical drugs we are constantly encouraged to consume:

CERVICAL CANCER: A vaccine that Glaxo thinks is great

Cervical cancer is invariably caused by the HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. Globally around 470,000 new cases are reported every year, and the disease annually kills around 230,000 women, many of whom are from developing countries.

And so when a drug company says it has discovered an effective vaccine against the virus, people should sit up and take notice.

That's exactly what happened when researchers from Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire tested a new vaccine, code-named HPV-16 and HPV-18, on 1,113 women against a placebo. It was effective against infection in nearly 92 per cent of cases, and was 100% effective against persistent infection.

As a result the paper was 'fast-tracked' by The Lancet, and its findings - "the vaccine could contribute substantially to reducing worldwide rates of cervical cancer" - were the only words on that week's cover.

So what's the problem? Well, it's probably nothing, but... the drug has been developed by GlaxoSmithKline, most of the researchers receive some funding or support from GlaxoSmithKline, the trial was paid for by GlaxoSmithKline, and technical analyses of the data was prepared by employees of GlaxoSmithKline.

We're not suggesting for a moment that there's been any wrong-doing or that there's been even the slightest partiality - it would have been nice if just someone not associated with GlaxoSmithKline had a look in, that's all.

(Source: The Lancet, 2004; 364: 1757-65).

This is a small example of a very large and significant trend. The Lancet is a medical publication with a reputation that is second to none. And it seems too many people will believe anything that is deduced by any "scientific study". How often do they consider how the study was funded or any other factors that may influence its outcome?


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