On the meningitis outbreak
Posted on Oct 22, 2012 in Opinion
The recent outbreaks of acute to lethal meningitis throughout the United States is as eye-opening as it is upsetting. According to the New York Times, 14 patients have died and 156 more have been sickened in the month of October so far. The illness has presented itself in patients that were given a steroid injection for back pain, with all cases caused by the same strain of a rare, fungal meningitis.
The distributor of the drug, New England Compounding Center (NECC), has totally shut down, recalling all of its products and surrendering its license in light of the controversy (The New York Times).
Companies like NECC represent a small population of pharmaceutical companies that still practice what is known as “compounding,” a more traditional method of pharmacy that emphasizes patient-specific, “made from scratch” medications, individualizing the types and dosages of medicines that the patient receives (PCCArx.com).
While the motives of compounding seem legitimate enough, its image, as evidenced by this month’s tragedies, is a little less noble than the friendly face the business attempts to sketch.
Money is the chief reason why doctors devote their businesses to compounders and why the process of compounding still exists at all. The medicines distributed by companies like NECC are far cheaper than drugs processed and shipped by major drug companies, which provides an incentive for physicians to use these drugs in practice.
One of the reasons why these drugs are so much cheaper, as Jess Bidgood, Robbie Brown and Sheelagh McNeill of The New York Times describe, is that compounders are allowed to “mix up batches of drugs on their own…with little of the federal oversight of drug safety and quality control that is routine for the big companies” (Bidgood, Brown, McNeill).
The outbreaks of meningitis in the past few weeks raise important questions concerning how pharmaceutical corporations should be regulated. Many would argue that compounding maintains competition and diversity in the field of pharmacy, despite the possibilities of faulty or infected drugs.
Such a claim would be easy to make provided one has a complete lack of understanding toward the devastating potential that lax regulations present. Whatever one’s stance on the federal government’s role in mediating the lives of Americans is, I believe that receiving the most diligent and safest available treatment, for whatever ailment, should stand as an immutable necessity.
What the cost of health care should be is a debatable issue, but an argument on whether that care should be competent is ridiculous because there is simply no excuse for allowing infected or contaminated medications to reach the hands of a patient.