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Whistleblower in Coventry: Dr Yolande Lucire and Big Pharma

By Peter King - posted Monday, 20 December 2010


Australia lags well behind the US and Britain in facing up to the malfeasance of multinational drug companies pushing unsafe products. Very often Big Pharma itself has largely conjured up the booming markets in which its dubious drugs offer expensive treatment for dubious medical conditions.

The biggest and most lucrative scandals have been in two types of second-generation drugs: anti-depressants or SSRIs - Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, etc, and "atypical" antipsychotics such as Zyprexa, Risperdal and Seroquel which were known from their licensing to be ineffective for the vast majority of clinical trial subjects and up to twice as bad for inducing suicide as antidepressants.

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The corrupt drug trial and marketing practices of Big Pharma include imaginary science (the serotonin deficiency theory of depression), systematic suppression of lethal side effects (akathisia - cannot-sit-down restlessness - leading to suicidal ideation, suicide and murder) and a multi-billion dollar success over the past generation in medicalising the ordinary ups and downs of the human psyche.

Feeling sad? ("Moderate depression", worthy of a happy little Zoloft rock.) Diffident? ("Social anxiety disorder", try Aropax.) If antidepressants cured any significant number of people there would be significantly less cost and less demand for mental health services in Australia. Whether from inadequate or tendentious pharmacology training, laziness, busyness, greed driven by willed ignorance or even misplaced conviction, the medical profession has succumbed to the cynical marketing and the targeted blandishments of the pharmaceutical companies.

Medical and scientific journals from Nature to The New England Journal of Medicine allowed their columns to be infiltrated for years by blatantly dishonest research reporting and ghost written articles commissioned in Pharma-land but signed by distinguished professors frequently in receipt of seven-figure research and consultancy funding. Most of these journals do now take another tack, debunking Pharma claims and exposing fraudulence. But many medical professional bodies are still being subsidised beyond hope of objective dealing with the issue of mass iatrogenesis caused by dud drugs andmultiple drug prescribing ("polypharmacy"), and particularly with the lethal side effects of anti-depressants.

The key drug regulator in the US - and the planet - the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) has failed to purge the Pharma-friendly experts who have dominated its rulings up to now. Our own Therapeutic Goods Administration obediently follows suit, also licensing drugs largely on information provided by their makers. But in America the going has been getting perceptibly harder for the drug companies.

Whistleblowers, class actions and litigious state governments confronting ballooning health costs have been taking a toll on profits. Pfizer was recently fined $US2.3 billion for fraudulently promoting four drugs including the "antipsychotic" Zeldox last year. This fine is seriously denting Pfizer's bottom (net income) line of $US8 billion, and whistleblowers, including former Pfizer employees, collected over $US100 million for their pains in this case - a big threat to Pharma for the future.

Although such a fine has been described in a recent British Medical Journal as"firing 22s into the arse of a rhino" and Pfizer has been called "too big to nail" (only a Pfizer subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal charges), drug companies face a rising tide of multi-billion dollar class actions and the prospect of new laws which could put them out of business. The original whistleblowers who were listened to have made the key difference in the United States. Robert Whitaker traced the suicide epidemic and mental health cost blow-out following the launch of Prozac in 1988. The quiet Irishman, David Healy, exposed drug trial fakery and the vast, hidden collateral damage of pharma's SSRI bonanza in the 1990s and later.

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These two and others have engineered a paradigm shift in public understanding, and professorial heads in receipt of undeclared consultancy riches have started to roll at research institutes and universities in the US, including even Harvard. According to the New York Times, Dr Joseph Biederman, the pioneer of "aggressive diagnosis and drug treatment of childhood bipolar disorder", failed to report most of the $1.6 million he received in pharma funding over several years while at Harvard.

The single person who has been trying hardest to fill the Whitaker/Healy whistleblower gap in Australia is Sydney psychiatrist, Dr Yolande Lucire. Thirteen years ago she began to notice alarmingly high hospital admission and suicide rates among patients treated with SSRIs and atypical antipsychotics in New South Wales's Greater Southern Area Health Service. Since then she has been fighting back against the Pharma-driven psychiatric consensus that treating with SSRIs is safe and effective, working hard to wean patient-victims as well as their prescribers off the drugs.

She has steadily accumulated damning statistics on suicide, homicide and hospitalisation rates among these patients in New South Wales. More recently it has become clear that a large percentage of people being treated with antidepressants can't metabolise them due to common genetic mutations. Dr Lucire has been campaigning to introduce systematic doctor education in order to minimise promiscuous and uninformed anti-depressant prescribing. With her complaints, findings and warnings about lack of action, Dr Lucire has been assiduously lobbying her colleagues, the Medical Board and the Health Care Complaints Commission of NSW, the Adverse Drug Reactions Advisory Committee (ADRAC) of the federal Therapeutic Goods Administration and a clutch of ministers, both state and federal, for many years. Most recently she has been providing redacted files on her own extensive sample of DNA swab-tested relapsing patients suffering from the side effects of SSRIs and polypharmacy.

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About the Author

Peter King is convener of the West Papua Project at Sydney University and the author of West Papua and Indonesia since Suharto: Independence, Autonomy or Chaos? (UNSW Press)

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