Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

W.H.O. and the Medical Industry

At EP-ology, Carl Phillips has a new post on the World Health Organization’s failure to care about suffering.   It’s worth reading — especially if you (still) believe that the WHO’s main aim is promoting health.

Phillips’s focus in that post is on a new WHO Atlas on headaches

and the problem that headaches cause people to stay home from work, or work less productively.   The agency estimates that Europe-wide, the lost productivity from migraines alone is worth 155 billion euros each year.  It isn’t that you feel crummy when your head hurts, and that chronic headache makes your life miserable.  It’s that you might not perform your expected per-capita service to the expansion of wealth.

Here’s how EP-ology assesses the agency:

The WHO is not the humanitarian organization that many people might think it is.  It is a special-interest medical-industry-oriented organization with an emphasis on the interests of governments, not people.  Its emphasis on productivity in looking at headaches … ignores people’s welfare…

Now, I can’t agree with Phillips’s analysis that the WHO’s ethical system is either “communist” or “fascist.”  For self-described public health agencies like the WHO to be concerned primarily with productivity and the generation of wealth — and only secondarily, if at all, with suffering — has been a hallmark of capitalism since the British Parliament passed the world’s first Public Health Act in 1848.

In fact, the laws institutionalizing public health in Britain in the late 1840s were passed by the Whig (liberal, more or less) government of Lord John Russell.  Public health was a legacy of efforts not by the nascent socialist and communist movements, but by radical capitalists — who sought to secure a moderately hale labor force to serve British industry with little cost to the factory owners.  And aimed to blame individuals for their own misery.

But it’s impossible to disagree with the main point of Phillips’s post:  WHO’s aim is to serve industry.

As further evidence, consider this follow-up note on Tamiflu by Helen Epstein, published in the May 26th issue of NY Review of Books (I discussed Epstein’s main article in a post last month).  It seems more and more apparent that potential dangers of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) in children were ignored.  Epstein reports that

the risks of delirium and unconscious episodes were indeed significantly elevated in children who took Tamiflu, especially if they took the drug during the first day or so after influenza symptoms appeared….  If these results are confirmed, they are especially worrying, since the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control both recommend that Tamiflu be taken as soon as possible after symptoms appear.

I was not the only one unaware of this important study; neither, apparently, were the World Health Organization, the US Food and Drug Administration, and the US Centers for Disease Control. When I contacted these agencies in January and February 2011, their spokespeople assured me that there was no evidence that Tamiflu causes neuropsychiatric side effects in children. [emphasis added]

In the rush to move taxpayer monies into the hands of wealthy private corporations, the WHO (with CDC and other agencies) proclaimed a flu emergency in 2009.  And ignored evidence on possible dangers of the products they were touting as part of the “preparedness” response.

Profiting from Preparedness

Don’t miss Helen Epstein’s brilliant exposé in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. She shows how the profit motive shapes the “preparedness” industry — worth $10 billion worldwide in 2009 (the year of the Flu Pandemic That Wasn’t).

I’ve covered the profit-motivated thinking behind vaccine recommendations generally and specifically with regard to flu immunization.  Epstein’s main interest is in the role of pharmaceutical companies in promoting oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and other neuraminidase inhibitors as public health responses to flu fears.  Her story features the brilliant work of Tom Jefferson and colleagues, and the shady behavior of the global biotech firm Roche in trying to block Jefferson et al.’s efforts to investigate the safety of neuraminidase-blocking agents.

Jefferson was lead author on the Cochrane Collaborations’ main paper on neuraminidase inhibitors for flu prevention and treatment.   But when reports of adverse effects of these drugs emerged and he and colleagues tried to re-assess the underlying reports on which the effectiveness of oseltamivir and similar drugs was based, Jefferson was stymied.  His colleague, Peter Doshi, related the story in BMJ.   The journal’s editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, along with Cochrane director Mike Clarke, wrote in an accompanying editorial:

The review and a linked investigation undertaken jointly by the BMJ and Channel 4 News cast doubt not only on the effectiveness and safety of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) but on the system by which drugs are evaluated, regulated, and promoted.

The take-home message is that while there is evidence that Tamiflu can be effective in treating flu, the evidence is shakier than it seems, and troubling reports point to potentially serious adverse effects.

How does a questionable medication get to be the basis (or part of the basis) for public health policy?  The answer is that the policy makers and the money makers work hand in hand.

Maryann Napoli at Center for Medical Consumers tried to point out the troubling links between WHO and big pharma last year, and Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine brought it up around the same time.

But most of the coverage focuses on the involvement of individual scientists and/or physicians who are receiving payments or other forms of remuneration directly from drug companies.  It’s not hard to police such straightforward conflicts — and so it was easy for Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, to say last year that “at no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making.”

Epstein’s great contribution is in showing that obvious conflicts of interest aren’t the main way that for-profit companies influence policy.  It’s done through stonewalling, as Jefferson encountered when he tried to examine Roche’s data.  It’s done through widely accepted collusions.

For instance, the CDC Foundation — “Helping CDC Do More, Faster” is its motto — is a nonprofit organization, created by the U.S. Congress, whose job is to

connect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with private-sector organizations and individuals to build public health programs that make our world healthier and safer.

Of course, calling them “private-sector organizations” suggests that these are not-for-profits — and some, like the District of Columbia Department of Health, the Medical College of South Carolina, and UNICEF, really are.  But most of the private-sector collaborators who are linked with CDC’s policy makers by the CDC Foundation are big corporations.  They include all the giants of Pharma world:  Merck, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi-Pasteur, etc.  (They also include some who are just giants:  Google, Dell, YUM! Brands, and IBM, to name a few.)

So when CDC’s updated flu response plan now recommends antiviral (i.e., neuraminidase-inhibitor) treatment “as soon as possible,” it’s worth asking whether this is because it has any public health value (answer:  no) or just because CDC is cozy with companies that make money when people get sick.