Big Pharma

Big Pharma   

Jacky Law  

London, UK: Constable & Robinson  2006 | 256pp | ?12.99 (SB) | ISBN 1845291395  

Reviewed by Bea Perks

The MMR saga - where parents across the UK ignored government advice and refused to inoculate their children with the 3-in-1 measles, mumps and rubella jab - was the direct result of one man’s assertion that MMR could trigger autism. Andrew Wakefield’s widely publicised hypothesis first appeared in The Lancet, and was subsequently retracted by the journal. Nevertheless, UK immunisation levels dropped to dangerous levels, putting the population as a whole at risk.  

The sorry tale is used as an example in Jacky Law’s book taglined ’How the world’s biggest drug companies control illness.’ Since when was Andrew Wakefield one of the world’s biggest drug companies? 

There is every reason to believe that big pharma probably does control illness. For good or for bad. It would be fascinating to find out more, but you won’t find it here. MMR is a saga in itself, try the editor of The Lancet’s book on the subject (MMR - Science and Fiction, Richard Horton). However you look at it, the story doesn’t help untangle the role big pharma plays in controlling illness. 

I’m fed up with reading about treatments for disorders I didn’t know I had, but maybe, now I think about it, I do have. There is an advert on TV for a toothpaste designed to prevent receding gums. I’ve never heard anyone complain of receding gums (though someone at work has just admitted she worries about them from time to time, so perhaps I’m jumping to unreasonable conclusions). Nevertheless, you can be pretty sure there’ll be people queuing up for that toothpaste now they’ve seen the advert. I won’t be in the queue, but I’ve started looking at my gums in a different light. That’s a daft example, but it’s a real problem. Think of the wealthy western parents feeding their over-active children Ritalin - some children need it, but some children are being given it because it’s there and it’s easy. There are hundreds of similar examples. At the other end of the spectrum there are millions and millions of penniless people desperately in need of drugs that big pharma can provide. But big pharma needs to make money, and desperate poor people are hardly the target market. 

What a shame then that Law barely mentions HIV in her book, and doesn’t mention malaria at all. Ritalin gets a passing mention. 

So an interesting topic then, under a heading that might encourage potential readers to take it off the shelf. But it emphatically doesn’t do what it says on the tin. Law quotes an enormous number of experts and journalists, but you get the impression she hasn’t actually spoken to anyone. ’This is just one long list of Google searches,’ said one of the quoted experts when I handed him a copy.