Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What If the Cure Is Worse than the Disease?

"When scientists underestimate complexity, they fall prey to the perils of unintended consequences."
       Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Gene: An Intimate History.

“Let me through. My brother is a doctor.”
       Dev Patel. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

"The problem with the gene pool is that there is no lifeguard."
       Steven Wright.

We live in an age where, it seems, as soon as we can come up with an ailment, someone is busy building and marketing a drug for it. Irritable Bowel Syndrome? No problem. We have a pill for that. Restless Leg syndrome? Ditto. Acid Reflux Disease? Right this way.

I have no doubt that all these conditions are real and people are actually suffering from them. What I’m having trouble with is the extent to which these same folks are apparently willing to go in order to address their ailments.

Sure, this will cure your irritable bowel syndrome… but it’s also known to cause thyroid cancer and jaundice. This one helps with your restless leg syndrome, but is also known to cause internal bleeding and strokes. Really? Is that the choice? Apparently it is, according to all the pharmaceutical companies who are happily spending billions of dollars inventing these drugs and more billions advertising them.

One of my favorites is a medication that is advertised as causing “headache, anxiety, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, constipation, dizziness, restlessness, high blood sugar, seizures, uncontrollable facial movements and suicidal thoughts." Another ad actually lists death as an unlikely but possible side effect.

"Talk to your doctor,” they always remind us at the end - as if the choices are sensible.

Which brings me to the story I was trying to relate... I just had a scary vision of myself as a centenarian, fifty years from now, still hanging on and being a pain in the ass not just to my daughter but also to her children and grandchildren. Given the advances in medicine and genetics, I have no doubt that they will find a cure for high cholesterol, hypertension, and cancer in the next few years - all things my parents happily passed onto me as part of their genetic heritage.

But given some of the side effects mentioned above, I’ll probably still be suffering from male pattern baldness and lower back pain. As Joan Osborne laments in Dracula Moon, “What if the cure is worse than the disease?”

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