Big Pharma

My Fantasy Pharmacy

People are allowed fantasy football teams, so why shouldn't I be allowed my own little fantasy pharmacy?

Now people, I want you to contribute to this post. So let me know if I haven't included your desert Island drug and why you think my pharmacy should stock it, and I shall put it on the shelves if I deem it worthy. Tweet me @SparkleWildfire, leave a comment, or drop me an email at I'm going to start off small with this post, and add to it gradually.

With all this talk of pharmacy as a quack trade, and the lack of evidence base for many OTC products, my pharmacy is going to have the bare minimum. Only the drugs I want to sell, ad that I think are necessary, with none of the extraneous, shiny combination packs that are purely there for profit. 

So, welcome into my emporium of evidence-base, and help yourself to some expert advice, a healthy dose of skepticism, and a pinch of thriftiness.

Shelf One: Pain Relief

  • Paracetamol: because it is an effective painkiller and antipyretic with few side effects. 
  • Ibuprofen: again, an effective painkiller and antipyretic. Needs more caution because of side effects, but still useful to have over the counter.
  • Sumatriptan: a good shout, thanks for your comment, Joanne. This is actually a really useful product to have OTC, in my opinion- its for migraines, so its great for regular sufferers to have easy access to if they don't have their usual meds to hand. But it does needs to be sold very carefully, with good questioning and counselling. 

Shelf Two: Coughs and Colds

  • Sudafed: just the plain old pseudoephedrine variety. Its the most effective decongestant over the counter (phenylephrine has much less of an effect orally) and can be combined with paracetamol or ibuprofen if there is pain associated with blocked sinuses.
  • Lemons and Honey: for combining with hot water for soothing throats and coughs. About as effective as any other cough mixture.
  • Glycerin, Lemon and Honey Mixture: as above, but ready made for when you don't have access to a kettle. Also: its quite delicious. 
  • I would include a night time product too, but I'm not sure which one yet. I don't want to include Night Nurse because its got far too many ingredients in it, and no one should have to take medicines they don't need. My product would just have diphenhydramine and paracetamol in it, probably, just something to help you sleep when you have that awful achey can't breathe feeling that comes with colds. 
  • Menthol crystals: for adding to steam inhalations. Inhaling the vapours of a  couple of those bad boys in boiling water will have your mucus cowering and crying in a corner. 
  • Xylometazoline nasal spray: an option for people with bad congestion who can't take pseudoephedrine.
  • Pholcodine cough medicine: As voted for by Kev. Its cheap enough, and acts to suppress a dry, tickly cough. Shouldn't be used in chesty coughs though. 

Shelf Three: Ear problems

  • Olive oil: there is no reason whatsoever for any of the other products to exist. Plain old cheap olive oil will do the job just as well as anything else.
  • Dropper: for administering the olive oil. 

Shelf Four: Allergies

  • Generic beclomethasone nasal spray: cheap, works if used in advance of the hayfever season.
  • Antihistamine tablets (generic): Chlorphenamine, loratadine, and cetirizine. Exactly the same as the hugely expensive branded varieties. chlorphenamine can cause drowsiness, the other two tend to be much of a muchness- some people find one works for them, some the other.
  • Cheap anti-allergy eye drops: great for people that have predominantly eye symptoms. 


That's a little start, and I shall add to it when I think of anything else or get a chance.


Teratology: an area where more critical thinking would be useful

(Teratology: Noun: The scientific study of congenital abnormalities and abnormal formations. From the Greek teras [meaning monster or marvel] and logos [meaning study])

"Hands up, who is afraid of advising someone takes a medicine in pregnancy?"

In the couple of training sessions I've delivered, this has been my opening line. And many hands go up. I regularly give advice on medicines in pregnancy in my job, and it strikes me that it is an area which could hugely benefit from more critical thinking and a reliance on evidence in everyday medical practice. I'm thinking might do a little series of blog posts on this subject. 

So why are so many people afraid of giving advice? One word: thalidomide. You'll all probably know what went wrong in the thalidomide disaster- a drug that was commonly used for morning sickness which unfortunately causes limb malformations when used at the time of pregnancy when women get morning sickness. That, coupled with the lack of post-marketing regulation ad monitoring back in those days- led to a perfect teratogenic storm, with obvious impacts for those affected, but which also shook the medical profession to its core. The good thing is that it forced a rethink in medicines regulation and triggered interest in pharmacovigilance, with schemes like pregnancy registries, teratology information services, and the MHRA's Yellow Card scheme being introduced in its wake. It's also left a lasting, deep-rooted fear of the potential of medicines to cause harm in pregnancy in pharmaceutical companies, patients and medical professionals alike. 

Why is this fear a problem? Well, primarily because some pregnant women do still get ill, and do still need medical treatment. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard a doctor say to me "my patient has (insert life threatening disease) and she's found out she's pregnant, so I've stopped all of her meds. What harm will that have caused?" And my first response is "how is your patient?", along with having to try very hard to stop myself saying "what do you think is going to be more of a teratogen, whatever the drug is, or having a patient who is dead?!" Such decisions to stop treatments are often done without consulting any evidence first, and there is a clear potential for harm to patients and their pregnancies in such situations. 

Another harm is that, in the event of something going wrong in a pregnancy, there's a tendency to way something to blame. I think it must be truly awful to have to think that because you have taken medicines, it's all your fault, especially as in many, many cases there will be no clear causality. 

I think we can pretty safely say that, because of the things that have been put in place since thalidomide, that another similar disaster won't happen again. There are drugs which can undoubtedly cause harm in pregnancies but as with all things in medicine, we have to consider a benefit vs risk balance. And we have to take into account what evidence we have access to, think about its limitations, and apply it to each individual situation. Just stopping all medicines because a patient is pregnant is not going to be the least risky option in most cases (and indeed in all those aforementioned cases that I've discussed, the drugs the patient has been on have turned out to have some pretty reassuring data sets). I even know of a dr who panicked so much when he found out his patient was pregnant that he put a note through her door telling her to have an abortion because he had prescribe her some drugs which turned out to have a pretty robust safety record in pregnancy. Imagine the emotional harm this sort of thing could cause. 

I don't want to end up writing a hugely long blog post so I'm going to end this one here as I'll cover some more aspects in future posts.

Big Pharma & Big Homeo: Titans will clash, and ducks will die.

There has been much talk of homeopathy in the media in the past few days. I want to pick up on one point that is being brought up by homeopathy believers everywhere at the moment in response to any criticism.

"But Big Pharma has many problems! Just read Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre!"

There are a few reasons why this is an utterly terrible argument.

The Logical Fallacy

This is not a two option scenario, so this is a false dilemma. homeopathic supporters are attempting to suggest that because Big Pharma has its problems, homeopathy is a better alternative. But here's the problem: These are not the only options in the world. Big Pharma does have massive, endemic problems, but that bears no resemblance to whether or not homeopathy works. Even if there were no evidence that any conventional medicine works ever, there still wouldn't be any evidence that homeopathy works either.

There's definitely an element of a "You too!" fallacy here as well. Big Pharma has its problems, but this is no reason to expect anything less than impeccable ethics from any other sector. 

The Misleading Rustic Image

Homeopathic manufacturers would very much like us to have a fluffy, warm, reassuring image in our heads of some nice, compassionate people making a tincture from plants, shaking it in a special way, and making a nice, safe medicine from it. In actual fact, the image is rather more grubby, with diseased body parts, conventional medicines, and limbs being used in the manufacture. Oscillococciinum, supposedly the most popular homeopathic remedy for flu, involves killling a muscovy duck and using its heart and liver to produce a mother tincture. I wonder if folks who are against animal testing and the likes in the pharmaceutical industry are aware of this fact? For the purposes of this blog post, lets call our duck Dave

A Muscovy Duck Named Dave

A Muscovy Duck Named Dave

Homeopathy is not usually made by ethical practitioners in their kitchens. And frankly, if it were, i'd be pretty concerned about hygeine etc and would be wanting inspectors to go round to check it. Its mainly made by large companies who are ultimately concerned with profits. In fact, until very recently, New Era homeopathic products (ooh, sounds all new age-y and nice and hopeful, doesn't it?) were made by Merck (Sounds-and indeed is- a pretty damn large corporate pharmaceutical company).

We also know from the FDA that homeopathic manufacturers can be less than meticulous to say the least in their standards. Broken glass? That's not a problem, just leave it there on the production line, no one will mind. More info on this story can be found at The Quackometer

The Massive Mark Up Margins

Pharmaceutical companies spend a HUGE amount on research and development of new drugs. First they have to employ people to find a new chemical entity, whether that be in the rainforest or in the lab. Then they have to find out if it works, which involves a huge amount of lab work. If that seems postive, they then have to do trials, which is hugely expensive. At any of these stages, there is a huge likelihood of failure and it is a very, very small minority of new chemical entities that actually get through to a stage where they can be marketed. At that point, price margins can be pretty damn high, which is in part to cover all of those R&D costs. Yes, there are also huge profits that are made in the pharmaceutical industry, and there are all the associated problems covered in Bad Pharma. This is certainly not an ideal scenario, but at least at the end of the day we are left with some drugs that work.

Big Homeo, on the other hand, puts little-if any- funds into research and development. If it did, we would have a load more trials than we do now. The work in drug discovery has been done for them, by Hahnemann et al who have written Materia Medica and the likes. So not many outgoings there then.

What about the costs of the ingredients? Well sugar is cheap, as is water. And even if your mother tincture comes from a valuable substance, you can make a hell of a lot of homeopathic medicine from it. Here is the recipe for Boiron's Oscillococcinum (according to Wikipedia)

  • Active ingredient: Anas Barbariae Hepatis et Cordis Extractum (extract ofMuscovy Duck liver and heart) 200CK HPUS 1×10−400 g[9]

  • Inactive ingredient: 0.85 g sucrose0.15 g lactose (100% sugar.[10])

So to make 1 gram of oscillococcinum, you only need 1×10−400g of extract of poor Dave's heart and liver. This is a ridiculously tiny amount, and as you will hopefully now know, there will be VERY VERY VERY little chance of any of Dave's molecules remaining in the resulting solution. 

I have no idea how much the heart and liver of Wor Duckie Dave would weigh. I also have no idea how much an extract made from him would cost. I'm guessing, however, that the number of packs of homeopathic pills I could make from his unfortunate organs would mean it is very, very lucrative, and I would be laughing all the way to the bank with my profits were I a company with few scruples about selling nonsense to vulnerable people. 

The Pointlessness Of It All

Poor Dave. Dave has been killed to make a medicine. However, none of Dave's molecules actually make it into that medicine in the end, because it has been diluted to such extremes. There's no memory of Dave in the water or sugar left in the medicine, only in the minds of his little duckie friends and his family who miss him dearly. There are huge outcries about bear bile being collected for use in chinese traditional medicines- why is no one speaking out for Dave?

At the end of the day, evidence suggests that after all the sacrificing, succussing, potentization, and all the other fancy words they use for magic rituals, what we are left with is an inert sugar pill.We could have saved ourselves all the bother, and saved Dave's life, if we just made an inert sugar pill in the first place and didn't bother with all the pretending. 

Won't anyone think of the ducks?