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How serious the 2009/2010 swine flu outbreak was portrayed by academics had a lot to with whether or not they were funded by Big Pharma says an article this week in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health on bmj.com. An analysis of 425 articles between April and July of 2009 showed that the academics who promoted the use of antiviral drugs for swine flu were eight times more likely to have financial links to drug companies. Ties included grants, honorariums, speakers’ fees, consultancies, advisory roles, employment and company directorship or stock ownership, says the article.
In the US, the value of hormone replacement therapy was also conflated by researchers funded by Big Pharma. At least 50 articles in medical journals that convinced women and doctors of estrogen benefits were ghostwritten by Pfizer/Wyeth’s marketing company. Because of the hired guns, hormone replacement therapy was considered a right of passage for US women approaching menopause. It was supposed to prevent heart disease, dementia and conditions associated with aging–except that it didn’t. In 2002 hormone therapy was found to contribute to breast cancer, heart disease, strokes, blood clots and dementia. Oops. The same thing had happened in the 1970s and 80s when hormone therapy was found to cause endometrial cancer.
The iatrogenic harm caused by hormone therapy was so widespread, when women quit in 2002, the incidence of US breast cancer fell 15 percent among women with estrogen-fed cancer. 14,000 women who were expected to get breast cancer didn’t because they eliminated the source. The occurrence in women of heart disease also fell and ovarian cancer risks returned to normal when women got off the drugs. Few women or their doctors realized it but the same thing had happened with endometrial cancer rates in the 1970’s–they dropped when women quit hormone therapy. (H, Jick et al, “Replacement Estrogens and Endometrial Cancer,” New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 300:218-222 February 1, 1979 Number 5)
My book about US food and drug marketing, safety and regulation, Born with a Junk Food Deficiency, (Random House) reports drug industry promotion of hormone therapy benefits long after its risks were revealed in 2002. In 2010, the New York Times magazine ran a pro-hormone piece called “The Estrogen Dilemma,” by Cynthia Gorney, relying on five Wyeth-linked researchers whose conflicts of interest were not disclosed.
Claudio Soares, Louann Brizendine,Thomas Clarkson, Sanjay Asthana and Roberta Diaz Brinton (Endocrinology, July 2009, 150(7):3186 -3196) were all financially linked to the hormone maker Wyeth, now Pfizer.
When I was interviewed on CSPAN2’s Book TV by Stephanie Beasley of FDA Week last summer, she read a statement from Cynthia Gorney about the omitted financial conflicts of interest. Gorney, who teaches at University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, admitted the missing disclosures, citing disorganization and “deadline” pressure for the errors. What?
The only thing worse than a journalist “forgetting ” to mention financial links of sources in an article that casts the sources’ product in a favorable light is the publication’s publisher allowing the errors to stand. Repeated letters to the New York Times and its public editor resulted in no corrections or clarifications. Chalk one up for Big Pharma writing health news.
Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).