There have been a number of articles in recent years describing a common and cozy relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies. The deal usually looks like this: a drug company pays a doctor money, usually in the form of speaking fees at conferences, and the doctor in turn “teaches” his or her peers about using the company’s drug. Often the uses for the drug have not been tested enough to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration and are considered “off-label.” It is marketing in the guise of continuing education in the sense that the doctors in the audience may not be aware that the speaker is a shill.
Now the issue is becoming of concern to parents. The growing use of medication to treat behavior and emotional problems in children has prompted drug companies to turn their attention (and wallets) to pediatric psychiatrists. The NY Times ran this story last week highlighting a case in Minnesota in which a 12-year old girl who developed an eating disorder was treated with Risperdal, a drug approved for adult schizophrenia.
The girl’s mother was unaware at the time that the doctor who treated her daughter had received thousands of dollars in speaking fees from Johnson & Johnson, the company that makes Risperdal.
But what she also didn’t know was that scant research had been done to prove that Risperdal was a safe and effective treatment for her daughter’s condition. In fact, according to the article, the studies included as few as eight children, which would never be enough to pass muster with the FDA. As it was, the drug did help with her daughter’s eating disorder (increase in appetite is a known side effect of Risperdal) but the girl also developed a rare, painful nerve condition in her neck called dystonia that was also caused by the drug.
As parents we trust that the doctors who treat our children have only their best interest at heart. It is appalling to think that doctors are allowing themselves to be corrupted and in the process, putting children and families at risk.
Moreover, drug companies owe it to the kids who take their medications to do serious studies to find out the risks and benefits before thousands of children are exposed. Earlier this month, the FDA issued a statement to all makers of antidepressants to include a warning on the label that the drugs can cause an increase in suicidal thinking among children, adolescents, and young adults. For fully grown adults, the drugs do not seem to have this effect.
Just last night, my three-year old lay in his bed coughing from a cold. My husband asked if we should give him some medicine. I remembered a study I heard about recently that found that over-the-counter cough medicines are not effective and could cause children harm. I was grateful for that bit of insight. I wish there was more of it out there.