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Do You Have A Chronic Autoimmune Disease? Big Pharma Hopes So.

Do You Have A Chronic Autoimmune Disease? Big Pharma Hopes So.

Picture of Martha Rosenberg

The profit party is over for Big Pharma except for one category--drugs for autoimmune diseases. Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and plaque psoriasis are rare in the adult population but a spate of new ads and self-diagnosing "quizzes" suggest they are Big Pharma's next focus.

Whenever a disease is given initials--rheumatoid arthritis is now "RA," irritable bowel syndrome is "IBS" and ankylosing spondylitis is now "AS"-- watch for it to become a disease du jour, warn Pharma critics, pointing to the marketing of "ED," "RLS," "ADHD" and "GERD." This month, an aggressive broadcast ad campaign broke to scare people into questioning whether their back pain is actually the chronic autoimmune condition ankylosing spondylitis. When the medication is ready, the disease will appear.

 See More: Is Pharma Money Behind Health News Reporting?

Genetically-modified injected drugs, called TNF blockers and biologics, are highly correlated with rare cancers, TB and life threatening infections and allergic reactions. One popular TNF blocker is even paradoxically linked to a "lupus-like syndrome" and "new or worsening" psoriasis. What? Yet the drugs are increasingly marketed for mild skin and digestive conditions, back pain and even asthma because they make from $10,000 to $200,000 a year for Big Pharma per patient. Ka-ching.

As it did with Vioxx, Meridia, Trovan, Baycol, Vytorin, Avandia, Ketek, Prempro, Boniva/Fosamax, Big Pharma is mixing aggressive ad campaigns for TNF-blockers with planted  journals articles, a tactic called "if it's worth an ad it's worth an article" in the publishing world. In the top medical journals, ads for new TNF-blockers for RA and about the promise of biologics in general (from Amgen) flank studies and scientific papers that dispel risks and clinicians' objections.

"Among patients with autoimmune diseases, compared with treatment with nonbiologic regimens, initiation of TNF-antagonists was not associated with an increased risk of hospitalizations for serious infections," says one paper. The new expensive RA drugs are not "significantly associated with an increased risk of malignancy," says another. There's "no significant difference in the rate" of major adverse cardiovascular events in patients on TNF-blockers says a third paper. And TNF-blockers do not, repeat not, cause herpes zoster (shingles) says a fourth paper in March 6 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Scores of scientific papers report the opposite.

"Among patients with RA and other inflammatory diseases, those who initiated anti-TNF therapies were not at higher risk of herpes zoster compared with patients who initiated nonbiologic treatment regimens," say the authors, nine of whom report an astounding 46 links to Big Pharma especially biologic makers Amgen and Genentech. Though TNF blockers don't cause herpes zoster, the authors go on to say, outbreaks occur frequently enough in users that trials of anti-shingles vaccines should be initiated. A quick look at the paper's author disclosures shows many financial links to vaccine makers.

When it comes to expensive drugs that do more harm than good, drugs whose risks only emerge after billions have been made, neither federal regulators or medical journals seem to have learned their lesson. Stay tuned for an epidemic of "chronic autoimmune diseases."



Picture of Christine Rowe

I was interested in your blog on autoimmune illnesses. Is there any way to post links to the studies that you are referring to in this blog? Otherwise we have to try to search for what you are reading.


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You should be ashamed of this poorly researched article. TNF-Alpha inhibitors are an important breakthrough when it comes to treating Ankylosing Spondylitis (A.S.); a disease that previously was poorly understood and had few effective treatment options. Drugs like Remicade & Humira are very expensive but also, if carefully & appropriately prescribed, very effective. There is a risk of infection but serious life threatening infections are rare. Increased cancer risk is mostly confined to teenagers or those with Rheumatoid Arthritis not A.S. Just like any medication, it's about weighing up pros and cons. Doctors and insurance companies will not approve these expensive treatments unless genuinely needed.

A.S. is a systemic , progressive rheumatic disease that can cause inflammation and enthesitis in many parts of the body. Joints affected include the back, neck, hips, knees, shoulders, ribs, sacro-iliac joints and many others. In some people A.S. can also cause problems with heart, bowels or eyes. A.S. is far more than just a "bad back" as your ignorant author contends in this article and others where A.S. or biologics are mentioned. Mentioning TB also shows a lack of knowledge in this area as before commencement of anti-tnf treatment it is standard practice to pre-screen for latent TB infection.

Public awareness and understanding of the disease is very low. Articles like this do not help. Martha Rosenberg has written more than one poor article on this subject and this shows it is not a one-off oversight but an ongoing pattern of either neglectful research or deliberate misinformation. I urge you to give more consideration to your journalistic responsibility when considering writing such articles in future. Lazy journalism is not without repercussions when what you write contributes to perpetuating myths, stigma and/or misinformation. In future, if writing about a poorly understood condition or disease, the author would do well to contact patient organisations or charities to ensure that information is accurate. Just because few have heard of Ankylosing Spondylitis does not give your website an excuse to spread blatant untruths under the guise of "campaigning" or "fair opinion" or "journalism." It would have been better to ask for input from an organisation such as the Spondylitis Association of America.

Three useful links for readers to counteract your ignorant article:

Picture of Jill  Braden Balderas

Hi Oliver -- We welcome different opinions and discussion on our website.  Perhaps you'd like to join our community and write a response blog?

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This was very helpful as part of my learning about this topic. I survived advanced stage three colon cancer with major surgery in 02 and have been coping with a diagnosis of CFIDS for fourteen years and have been taking Bupropion that turns out to be a TNF blocker and I was just hit with a fungal infection and my research helped me in stopping the Bupropion at least until the fungal infection has resolved and then I will consider the safety of this medication for the treatment of my depression that I was taking it for -- considering my medical history. Often times it seems as if 'blind trust' is demanded from us consumers of medical products -- there simply is no place for blind trust when it comes to our health.

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