Science and medicine over time often seem to be giving us mixed messages. That is actually a good thing. It shows that medicine is always seeking and responding to new information, new data, and revising “the truth”. In our modern world, egged on by rapid technology upgrades and our insatiable demand for “no-risk” living, these “truth revisions” can be difficult to keep up with. Here is a brief update on some recent evidence-based revisions of the truth.
TREATMENT OF THE FLU
The World Health Organization for several years and still currently puts Tamiflu on its list of “essential drugs” and recommends its use in clinical practice as an anti-influenza drug.
A new Cochrane Collaborative meta-analyses of 20 controlled studies which included thousands of pages of previously unavailable data from drug manufacturers concluded that Tamiflu provided minimal benefit for treatment of flu symptoms. Flu symptoms in adults treated with Tamiflu were reduced from 7 days to 6.3 days, about 17 hours. In children, flu symptoms were reduced for a whole day (29 hours). Use of Tamiflu did not reduce hospitalizations and did not decrease complications like otitis media, pneumonia, or sinusitis. There were no flu-related deaths in any of the studies, so effect on mortality could not be determined. (1)
A 10 day course of 75 mg. per day of Tamiflu costs anywhere from $70 to $340 on the internet. At CVS and Kmart it costs about $125, or $12.50 a pill. The Cochrane study did show that if Tamiflu was taken as a drug to prevent flu symptoms after one was exposed to someone with flu, it could reduce the incidence of symptomatic flu by 55%.
So, like so many things in medicine, “ya (or your insurer) payz yur money and takes yur choice”.
VITAMIN SUPPLEMENTS AGAINST HEART DISEASE AND CANCER
In 2003 The United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) studied vitamin supplements as a means to reduce the incidence of heart disease and cancer. They concluded that there was insufficient evidence to recommend Vitamins A, C, E, folic acid, beta-carotene, or anti-oxidant combination supplements as beneficial in reducing the incidence of heart disease or cancer.
This year the USPSTF studied all evidence published since 2003, and came up with the same conclusion and recommendations. It reemphasized that Vitamin E “more certainly” does NOT reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and repeated its warning that the use of beta-carotene (vitamin A) pills actually increased the risk for lung cancer in smokers. The 2014 USPSTF report also added Vitamin D, calcium, and selenium (may actually increase risk of prostate cancer) to its “insufficient evidence of benefit” list. (2) In a separate study, swallowing omega-3 pills (fish oil) did not significantly reduce the risk of stroke or heart attacks. (3)
But remember, these vitamin supplement studies, perhaps spurred by the $28 Billion-plus vitamin supplement industry, are prompted by evidence showing that diets (real food, not supplements) rich in these trace vitamins and minerals are associated with decreased incidence of heart disease and cancer.
If the diet does it, why don’t the pills?
“The biology is complicated,” says Stephen Fortmann, MD, Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research.
WHAT ABOUT HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS?
“Supplements are regulated (by the FDA) more like foods, which is to say, they’re generally considered safe unless proved not to be”.
A FDA 2013 study using DNA analysis of 44 readily available herbal products revealed that fewer than 50% could be verified as containing the advertised ingredient. Since 2008 the FDA has issued warnings about 330 supplement products that turned out to be adulterated with active drugs not listed on the label. (3)
Three herbal supplements NEVER to take because of serious adverse side effects:
Kava to relieve stress and anxiety can cause liver failure
Yohimba to treat erectile dysfunction can cause volatile blood pressures and rapid heart rate.
Aconite to relieve joint pain can cause nausea and vomiting, low blood pressure, breathing paralysis, heart rate dysfunction, and even death.
GLUCOSAMINE FOR KNEE PAIN
Many patients take and some physicians recommend glucosamine for knee and hip pain due to osteoarthritis because a few small studies have suggested a benefit.
A study of 201 adults with knee pain who were given 1500 mg of glucosamine daily for six months showed no benefits. Compared to the placebo there was NO protection against progression of MRI changes, reduction of biochemical markers of cartilage degradation, or reduction of pain. (4)
1. Journal Watch, General Medicine, May 15, 2014, vol. 34, no. 10
2. Journal Watch, General Medicine, June 1, 2014, vol. 34, no. 11 3.
3. Consumer Reports on Health, June 2014, pg.4
4. Arthritis Rheumatol 2014 Apr; 66:930