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Fibromyalgia and the Problem with Dissing Pharma

Posted Feb 10 2009 10:08am 1 Comment
The Washington Post today published an AP report called Drugmakers' push boosts 'murky' ailment. Though the AP's Matthew Perrone's piece is not without some balance, you get a sense of where the article leans through the title. When it comes to heath care, the media loves a few things: medicines that are scary and can harm you, the next miracle cure or diet, and of course big bad pharma.

The article reports on how drugmakers Eli Lilly and Pfizer donated more than $6 million to nonprofit groups for medical conferences and educational campaigns of fibromyalgia, a disease that that affect 6 to 12 million people in the U.S., mostly women, and it not well understood. Because of this, there are some that are even skeptical that fibromyalgia is a real medical condition.

The focus of the article is that the drugmaker's donation is not out of good will or charity, but to boost the sales of their drugs for this "murky" condition. They state that $6 million is nothing compared to the $125 million or so that each company spent on direct to consumer advertising or the $300 million dollars in sales that the companies made.

All these numbers may be true, and there is no question that pharma is not a charitable foundation. They are for-profit companies and seek to make a profit. The problem is that despite limitations in our understanding of this disease, fibromyalgia is a real illness. Just because we don't know what causes it, doesn't mean it is not a disease. In addition, the drug company's medications actually work. Both drugs have been approved by the FDA because they show some improvement in pain compared to placebo in randomized clinical trials. For certain patients suffering with this disease, these medicines have changed their lives for the better.

According to the American College of Rheumatology, fibromyalgia is a real condition. The millions of people who suffer with fibromyalgia consume health care resources to a similar extent to patients with other chronic diseases such as diabetes mellitus and hypertension. I know the misery that some of my patients suffer with, and a quick Google search turns up a ton of bloogers such as fibromyalgia diary blog, The Fibromyalgia Research Blog, an about.com blogger and a community on revolution health. I doubt these folks have been provided hidden funding from evil pharma to promote a disease in order to raise profits.

Though this condition is still not understood, there is little research in this area compared to other chronic diseases. According to the The American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association (AFSA) in 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) expected to award $393 million to study hypertension compared with the $9 million it planned to award for researching fibromyalgia. Why aren't more research dollars being spent on fibromyalgia? If pharma not only provides treatments for this condition, but also funds research and advocacy groups, should we really crucify them for this?

Health care costs are through the roof, and in order to decrease the costs of prescription drugs we will need to work with the drug companies. However, like it or not, pharma supports most of the research for therapeutics and funds a huge amount of education. Though it would be nice if funding for research, advocacy and education came from less biased sources, do you really think the government or tax payers are willing to fund this, especially now during one of the worst economic crises in history? You can't have your cake and eat it too. The media should certainly criticize pharma (or any corporation) when they do something wrong, but lay off them when the do something right.
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These same pharmaceutical companies who are only concerned with making profit, apparently, also go out of their way to provide free medication to those who can't afford to buy it. I'm grateful they do, because thanks to their generosity, I have a good deal of pain relief. If all they wanted was to make money, you'd think they'd leave us out on our own.
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