Death by Medicine
By Gary Null, PhD; Carolyn Dean MD, ND; Martin Feldman, MD; Debora Rasio, MD; and Dorothy Smith, PhD
Specific Drug Iatrogenesis: Antibiotics
According to William Agger, MD, director of microbiology and chief of infectious disease at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, WI, 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used in America each year.58 Of this amount, 25 million pounds are used in animal husbandry and 23 million pounds are used to try to prevent disease and promote growth. Only 2 million pounds are given for specific animal infections. Dr. Agger reminds us that low concentrations of antibiotics are measurable in many of our foods and in various waterways around the world, much of it seeping in from animal farms.
Agger contends that overuse of antibiotics results in food-borne infections that are resistant to antibiotics. Salmonella is found in 20% of ground meat, but the constant exposure of cattle to antibiotics has made 84% of salmonella resistant to at least one anti-salmonella antibiotic. Diseased animal food accounts for 80% of salmonellosis in humans, or 1.4 million cases per year. The conventional approach to countering this epidemic is to radiate food to try to kill all organisms while continuing to use the antibiotics that created the problem in the first place. Approximately 20% of chickens are contaminated with Campylobacter jejuni, an organism that causes 2.4 million cases of illness annually. Fifty-four percent of these organisms are resistant to at least one anti-Campylobacter antimicrobial agent.
Denmark banned growth-promoting antibiotics beginning in 1999, which cut their use by more than half within a year, from 453,200 to 195,800 pounds. A report from Scandinavia found that removing antibiotic growth promoters had no or minimal effect on food production costs. Agger warns that the current crowded, unsanitary methods of animal farming in the US support constant stress and infection, and are geared toward high antibiotic use.
In the US, over 3 million pounds of antibiotics are used every year on humans. With a population of 284 million Americans, this amount is enough to give every man, woman, and child 10 teaspoons of pure antibiotics per year. Agger says that exposure to a steady stream of antibiotics has altered pathogens such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, Staplococcus aureus, and entercocci, to name a few.
Almost half of patients with upper respiratory tract infections in the US still receive antibiotics from their doctors.59 According to the CDC, 90% of upper respiratory infections are viral and should not be treated with antibiotics. In Germany, the prevalence of systemic antibiotic use in children aged 0-6 years was 42.9%.60
Data obtained from nine US health insurers on antibiotic use in 25,000 children from 1996 to 2000 found that rates of antibiotic use decreased. Antibiotic use in children aged 3 months to under 3 years decreased 24%, from 2.46 to 1.89 antibiotic prescriptions per patient per year. For children aged 3 to under 6 years, there was a 25% reduction, from 1.47 to 1.09 antibiotic prescriptions per patient per year. And for children aged 6 to under 18 years, there was a 16% reduction, from 0.85 to 0.69 antibiotic prescriptions per patient per year.61 Despite these reductions, the data indicate that on average, every child in America receives 1.22 antibiotic prescriptions annually.
Group A beta-hemolytic streptococci is the only common cause of sore throat that requires antibiotics, with penicillin and erythromycin the only recommended treatment. Ninety percent of sore-throat cases, however, are viral. Antibiotics were used in 73% of the estimated 6.7 million adult annual visits for sore throat in the US between 1989 and 1999. Furthermore, patients treated with antibiotics were prescribed non-recommended broad-spectrum antibiotics in 68% of visits. This period saw a significant increase in the use of newer, more expensive broad-spectrum antibiotics and a decrease in use of the recommended antibiotics penicillin and erythromycin.62 Antibiotics being prescribed in 73% of sore-throat cases instead of the recommended 10% resulted in a total of 4.2 million unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions from 1989 to 1999.
The Problem with Antibiotics
In September 2003, the CDC re-launched a program started in 1995 called “Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work.”63 This $1.6 million campaign is designed to educate patients about the overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics. Most people involved with alternative medicine have known about the dangers of antibiotic overuse for decades. Finally, the government is focusing on the problem, yet it is spending only a miniscule amount of money on an iatrogenic epidemic that is costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives. The CDC warns that 90% of upper respiratory infections, including children’s ear infections, are viral and that antibiotics do not treat viral infection. More than 40% of about 50 million prescriptions for antibiotics written each year in physicians’ offices are inappropriate.7,8 Using antibiotics when not needed can lead to the development of deadly strains of bacteria that are resistant to drugs and cause more than 88,000 deaths due to hospital-acquired infections.16
The CDC, however, seems to be blaming patients for misusing antibiotics even though they are available only by prescription from physicians. According to Dr. Richard Besser, head of the “Get Smart” program to educate patients about proper antibiotic use, “Programs that have just targeted physicians have not worked. Direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs is to blame in some cases.” Besser says the program “teaches patients and the general public that antibiotics are precious resources that must be used correctly if we want to have them around when we need them. Hopefully, as a result of this campaign, patients will feel more comfortable asking their doctors for the best care for their illnesses, rather than asking for antibiotics.”64
What constitutes the “best care”? The CDC does not elaborate and ignores the latest research on the dozens of nutraceuticals that have been scientifically proven to treat viral infections and boost immune-system function. Will doctors recommend garlic, vitamin C, lactoferrin, elderberry, vitamin A, zinc, or DHEA? Probably not. The CDC’s common-sense recommendations that most people follow anyway include getting proper rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and using a humidifier.
The pharmaceutical industry claims it supports limiting the use of antibiotics. The drug company Bayer sponsors a program called “Operation Clean Hands” through an organization called LIBRA.65 The CDC also is involved in trying to minimize antibiotic resistance, but nowhere in its publications is there any reference to the role of nutraceuticals in boosting the immune system, or to the thousands of journal articles that support this approach. This tunnel vision and refusal to recommend the available non-drug alternatives is unfortunate when the CDC is desperately trying to curb the overuse of antibiotics.
Drugs Pollute Our Water Supply
We have reached the point of saturation with prescription drugs. Every body of water tested contains measurable drug residues. The tons of antibiotics used in animal farming, which run off into the water table and surrounding bodies of water, are conferring antibiotic resistance to germs in sewage, and these germs also are found in our water supply. Flushed down our toilets are tons of drugs and drug metabolites that also find their way into our water supply. We have no way to know the long-term health consequences of ingesting a mixture of drugs and drug-breakdown products. These drugs represent another level of iatrogenic disease that we are unable to completely measure.66-74
Specific Drug Iatrogenesis: NSAIDs
It is not only the US that is plagued by iatrogenesis. A survey of more than 1,000 French general practitioners (GPs) tested their basic pharmacological knowledge and practice in prescribing NSAIDs, which rank first among commonly prescribed drugs for serious adverse reactions. The study results suggest that GPs do not have adequate knowledge of these drugs and are unable to effectively manage adverse reactions.75
A cross-sectional survey of 125 patients attending specialty pain clinics in South London found that possible iatrogenic factors such as “over-investigation, inappropriate information, and advice given to patients as well as misdiagnosis, over-treatment, and inappropriate prescription of medication were common.”76
Specific Drug Iatrogenesis: Cancer Chemotherapy
In 1989, German biostatistician Ulrich Abel, PhD, wrote a monograph entitled “Chemotherapy of Advanced Epithelial Cancer.” It was later published in shorter form in a peer-reviewed medical journal.77 Abel presented a comprehensive analysis of clinical trials and publications representing over 3,000 articles examining the value of cytotoxic chemotherapy on advanced epithelial cancer. Epithelial cancer is the type of cancer with which we are most familiar, arising from epithelium found in the lining of body organs such as the breast, prostate, lung, stomach, and bowel. From these sites, cancer usually infiltrates adjacent tissue and spreads to the bone, liver, lung, or brain. With his exhaustive review, Abel concluded there is no direct evidence that chemotherapy prolongs survival in most patients with advanced carcinoma. According to Abel, “Many oncologists take it for granted that response to therapy prolongs survival, an opinion which is based on a fallacy and which is not supported by clinical studies.”
Over a decade after Abel’s exhaustive review of chemotherapy, there seems no decrease in its use for advanced carcinoma. For example, when conventional chemotherapy and radiation have not worked to prevent metastases in breast cancer, high-dose chemotherapy (HDC) along with stem-cell transplant (SCT) is the treatment of choice. In March 2000, however, results from the largest multi-center randomized controlled trial conducted thus far showed that, compared to a prolonged course of monthly conventional-dose chemotherapy, HDC and SCT were of no benefit,78 with even a slightly lower survival rate for the HDC/SCT group. Serious adverse effects occurred more often in the HDC group than in the standard-dose group. One treatment-related death (within 100 days of therapy) was recorded in the HDC group, but none was recorded in the conventional chemotherapy group. The women in this trial were highly selected as having the best chance to respond.
Unfortunately, no all-encompassing follow-up study such as Dr. Abel’s exists to indicate whether there has been any improvement in cancer-survival statistics since 1989. In fact, research should be conducted to determine whether chemotherapy itself is responsible for secondary cancers instead of progression of the original disease. We continue to question why well-researched alternative cancer treatments are not used.