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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 20568

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: Journal Article

Davies E
Flu hype and pharma failures: patients deserve better
BMJ 2013 May 24; 346:


Epidemics, pandemics, new strains, and foreign scare stories are an annual event in the world of flu. It barely feels like winter until I’ve read an article about somebody thousands of miles away catching it from a farmyard animal.

We are bombarded with messages about flu whether we want them or not. And increasingly the noise is coming not from news outlets or drug manufacturers out to make a buck, but from those seeking to protect us.

In the latest article in the BMJ’s Too Much Medicine campaign ( Peter Doshi looks at the advice on influenza vaccination from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He argues that both the dangers of the disease and the need to be vaccinated are being greatly oversold (doi:10.1136/bmj.f3037). The expansion of groups recommended for the vaccine in recent years, by itself, makes compelling reading, but the overall thread of his argument makes a very strong case for a rethink.

At the very least it calls into question the wisdom of the pharmacy 30 yards from my front door, which, far from unusually, offered flu vaccines 24 hours a day for the whole family right through the winter.

Patient information and patient safety are at the heart of another feature this week, in which I speak to chief medical officers from the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies about their roles (doi:10.1136/bmj.f3285).

This is a fairly new breed of post, in which the holders are charged with being the voice of the patient within their company, which does at least seem a progressive step. Their status and ability to carry out this role varies hugely between firms, and, given their novelty, it’s probably rather too early to gauge their success.

But if they are to mean anything a few years down the line, they must be as accountable to the public as they are to their masters, or they will be confined to the ranks of industry PR moves.


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Far too large a section of the treatment of disease is to-day controlled by the big manufacturing pharmacists, who have enslaved us in a plausible pseudo-science...
The blind faith which some men have in medicines illustrates too often the greatest of all human capacities - the capacity for self deception...
Some one will say, Is this all your science has to tell us? Is this the outcome of decades of good clinical work, of patient study of the disease, of anxious trial in such good faith of so many drugs? Give us back the childlike trust of the fathers in antimony and in the lancet rather than this cold nihilism. Not at all! Let us accept the truth, however unpleasant it may be, and with the death rate staring us in the face, let us not be deceived with vain fancies...
we need a stern, iconoclastic spirit which leads, not to nihilism, but to an active skepticism - not the passive skepticism, born of despair, but the active skepticism born of a knowledge that recognizes its limitations and knows full well that only in this attitude of mind can true progress be made.
- William Osler 1909