Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Do drug companies and the media make us sick?

When I studied clinical psychology I recall one of my professors warning our class of the dangers of ‘medical-student syndrome'. The condition is suffered by students who experience unsubstantiated fears and symptoms of illnesses they are learning about. They become what the average person might consider a hypochondriac. So, seemingly, if you study illness you start to think you may have that illness. This seems to be infectious in more ways than one. Recently, British doctors warned of what they call ‘telly belly’. Immediately after watching health items on television or a soap opera with a character experiencing a particular illness, ‘patients’ with allegedly similar symptoms tend to appear at doctors’ offices.

This can be a good thing. Television helps shape how people feel and can raise awareness about health problems.

But, at the same time, it tells us how susceptible we are to media manipulation. There is a fine line between health education and educating us to constantly think we are sick. But does this matter if it means the potential for early diagnosis? To some degree it does. It is a waste of money, stretches State services and pushes up premiums for health insurance. Worse, it opens the door for various commercial interests to continue to persuade us into availing of their services and products.

Take your average bookshop. The health section is generally extensive, dozens of books promising to help you diagnose your problems and alleviate them with the purchase of some product. But is it not ironic that the average person who can afford to buy books these days and who tries out the cures has never been healthier in world history? Drug companies do the same. According to Marcia Angell, author of The Truth About Drug Companies, about 75% of new medications are ‘me too’ drugs which are no better than drugs already on the market to treat the identical condition. So three quarters of medications on the market are not necessary, but they have to sell. This explains why drug companies spend two-and-a-half times more on marketing and administration than on research. To increase the market is simple: tell people they are increasingly suffering from a range of conditions they did not even know they had and turn normal experience into illness. No doubt, certain people suffer from clinical depression and may need medication but, increasingly, unhappiness is being painted as a disease needing pills. Is illness creating the need for certain drugs or are drugs helping shape illnesses? I am not advocating a world without medication. We all know the importance of antiretroviral drugs in treating people living with HIV/Aids. There is also a critical place for genuine health education through programmes such as Soul City in South Africa. But what concerns me is that average people who are generally well are being sucked into a commercialised medical universe. The flagship of medicalisation is the media, which continually report on the slightest health scares and tempt us into self-diagnosis through relentless entertainment with medical themes such as ER and reality hospital-based TV shows. Let us not turn everyone in society into ‘patients’ with health obsessions. The more we do this, the more we lose perspective. While the middle class snap up the latest health-related books and drug companies roll out their new ad campaigns, people in genuine need of medication are dying. It seems that Mark Twain was right when he said: “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint”.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 13 May 2005.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Report of the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission

The Report of the Ghana National Reconciliation Commission is now available online. The report was released on April 22, 2005 and deals with the work of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) appointed in May 2002 to investigate past human rights abuses in the country. To view the report, click here.

Friday, May 6, 2005

Sick of politics? Then read this...

Politicophobia is the fear or abnormal dislike of politicians. Common symptoms include, according to US-based phobia experts CTRN, panic attacks, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea and overall feelings of dread. Now I know what you are thinking: is your dislike of politicians abnormal or about average? At this moment, mine feels severe. Elections are everywhere. Mugabe just pulled off another fast one, there has been the Papal election, and the UK is in the grips of election fever. I suspect I am not the only one feeling queasy at the sight of too many grinning politicians kissing babies and pressing the flesh with the masses. Do I suffer from politicophobia? I suspect not. Phobias are serious business but, certainly, I am feeling the first pangs of distress here in Northern Ireland that accompany the arrival of election posters on lampposts. I imagine I am not alone.

Elections seem to create as much apathy as interest these days. About half of the young people in the UK under 25 voted in the 2001 election. In contrast, ten-million people, mostly under 25, voted in the Big Brother reality TV show. The problem is not as acute in South Africa, but apathy is growing. The turnout of registered voters in 1999 was 89% and in 2004 it had dropped to 77%.

So what is the problem? There are many factors, but political campaigning as it currently stands is certainly one of the biggest turnoffs. I read most elections like this: they are 25% about real issues, 25% about worthless promises, 25% about taking media pot shots at the opposition and 25% about self-promotion. On top of this, elections imply choice, but political conservatism is slowly robbing the electorate of this. If you are lucky enough to live in a democracy, your ‘choices’ generally range between the centre-right and the right wing, and perhaps the odd lunatic on the fringe. In 1966, UK Conservative politician Quintin Hogg noted that the moment politics becomes dull, democracy is in danger. I seldom agree with a Conservative politician, but how true! In many countries, elections must be re-energised. But how does one do that? Certainly, it does not involve Bill Clinton playing a saxophone or TV ads showing politicians in open-neck shirts and baseball caps trying to look average. Here are my ideas: politicians should be fined 10 000 votes every time they use the word ‘promise’ or slate the opposition; all politicians should be compelled to live with a poor family for a month prior to the election (while being filmed); no political party should be allowed to use a public relations company; there should be an option on the ballot where you can make your mark if you do not endorse any candidates; and, finally, politicians should not be allowed anywhere near babies or hospitals while campaigning (unless sick or suffering from politicophobia themselves).

Now, do not get me wrong – I am not apathetic. Voting is important and we should all do it. Look at the US as an example of where every vote counts. But politicians must realise they are part of the problem and part of the solution to voter apathy. They have a responsibility to transform the plastic distrustful world of politics.

As for the rest of us, if we are feeling a little bit overdosed with politicians right now CTRN offers a 24-hour fear-of-politicians programme with 100% money-back guarantee. And, remember, it could be worse – you could live in Zimbabwe.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, April 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 22 April 2005.