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Pathologizing Kids, Pharma Style

Millions of kids today are on meds for conduct disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, mixed manias, social phobia and, of course, ADHD.

But according to data from IMS health in a Wall Street Journal article, just as many kids are being treated for non-psychiatric conditions that were often considered “adult diseases.”

In fact, 25 percent of children and 30 percent of adolescents now take at least one prescription for a chronic condition said Medco, a pharmacy benefit manager, making the kid prescription market four times as strong as the adult in 2009.

Between 2001 and 2009, high blood pressure meds for kids rose 17 percent, respiratory meds 42 percent, diabetes meds 150 percent and heartburn/GERD meds 147 percent.

In one study, 18.6 million children’s doctor visits for sleep problems, resulted in sleeping med prescriptions 81 percent of the time.

One reason for Pharma’s pediatric bonanza is kids have become more sedentary and likely to overeat, like their adult counterparts. Over a third of U.S. kids are overweight and 17 percent are obese — which for a 4-foot-10 inch child would be 143 pounds. Obesity predisposes children to diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal disorders.

But rather than telling kids to unplug the TV or video games, go outside and don’t come back until dinner, parents and medical professionals enable the deleterious lifestyles with the easy out of a pill. In fact, the Lipitor, already the world’s top selling medication in adults until it went off patent, was approved for US children in 2008 in a chewable form in Europe.

Adults on statins are six times more likely to develop liver dysfunction, acute kidney failure, cataracts and muscle damage, says an article in the British Medical Journal. So, give them to kids?

“Plenty of adults down statins regularly and shine off healthy eating because they know a cheeseburger and steak can’t fool a statin,” wrote Michael J. Breus, PhD on the Huffington Post. “Imagine a 10-year-old who loves his fast food and who knows he can get away with it if he pops his pills.”

And it gets worse. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, already an adult epidemic which sells the “Purple Pills” Nexium and Prilosec, is the next big disease in infants! “In parallel with the jump in adults, the number of acid-blocker prescriptions for colicky infants recently quadrupled,” wrote pediatrician Darshak Sanghavi on Slate.

Randomized studies regularly show that acid blockers do nothing to help baby reflux, says Sanghavi and “proton pump inhibitors” or PPIs like Nexium may “increase brain bleeds and gut damage in preterm infants as well as the risk of food allergies in older infants.”

Reflux drugs, sometimes called Purple Crack, are so over-prescribed–half of hospital inpatients are on them–that the head of Medicaid and Medicare admonished AMA doctors that, “You should be embarrassed if you prescribe Nexium, because it increases costs with no medical benefits.” They are even prescribed for intestinal tract pain where no hydrochloric acid exists for them to block, says Sanghavi. Nor does the absence of heartburn mean you don’t have GERD or presence of heartburn necessarily mean you do.

Now comes news that the infants being dosed with GERD medicines may have life-long effects.

“Researchers studied records of more than 850,000 children up to 14 years old. About 97,000 had received acid suppression medicines in their first year of life — 8,000 were prescribed proton pump inhibitors like Nexium; 71,000 took histamine-2 receptor antagonists like Pepcid; and 18,000 got both,” reports the New York Times. Kids given PPIs before the age of one had a 23 percent greater risk for fracture compared to infants not drugged.

There is a lot of money in pathologizing childhood, Big Pharma has found. And there is also a lot of danger.

More articles by:

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).

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