On March 10, 2013 CBS 60 Minutes aired the segment “Lethal Medicine,” a story about the pharmaceutical company NECC, which compounded a pain medication (that was avoidably infiltrated by fungus) that has now killed 48 people and injured even more. While we applaud the producers of 60 Minutes for this kind of investigative journalism, we are also extremely disappointed in how the story was introduced by Scott Pelley. For the opening introduction to this piece, Mr. Pelley framed the event of these 48 people being killed by calling it the “worst pharmaceutical disaster in decades.” Sadly, Pelley and 60 Minutes have forgotten the epidemiological nightmare caused by pharmaceutical companies to the hemophilia community in the last three decades.
From 1980 to this present day, people with hemophilia continue to die from AIDS and Hepatitis C. The figures are truly staggering for this community when you consider that in 1980, of the 10,000 hemophiliacs who entered that decade as a generation, fewer than 1,000 remain today. Many of those who have survived live a torturous existence, forced to live on difficult and expensive medications that cause brutal side effects and financial hardship. To understand why this tragedy is so relevant today is to realize not only why NECC was able to substitute greed for compassion in dealings with its patients, but why a similar medical disaster will happen again.
There are three components one must consider in looking back at the destruction wreaked on people with hemophilia, starting in 1980: greed, a lack of regulation by the federal government, and complete disregard for people’s lives.
The pharmaceutical companies that produced Factor VIII and Factor IX, clotting factors, knowingly used tainted blood to turn a life-saving medication into a death sentence. (Here is where 60 Minutes turned its back on its own story, Bad Blood, which they showed in October of 1996.) The tainted blood that was obtained by pharmaceutical companies was relatively inexpensive, and even when the first cases of AIDS began to spread like wildfire these same companies refused to remove these products from the market, again not to risk their bottom line.
In conjunction, the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control were not able and willing to effectively regulate these companies’ manufacturing processes, nor to clamp down on reckless corporate behavior once it became apparent that their product was killing and maiming people.
For the most part, doctors around this country became very witting accomplices by not practicing the first rule of medicine, “Do no harm.” By allowing drug manufacturers to continue to sell their product without raising legitimate concerns, and also by not properly warning their patients of the imminent danger, many doctors lacked the will or integrity to provide a firewall against this deadly medication.
Lastly, but even more importantly because the pharmaceutical companies went virtually unpunished for allowing the viruses that cause AIDS and Hepatitis C into blood factor, the plight of the hemophilia community remains in the shadows of our history as a nation. The story of what happened to people with hemophilia remains unknown to the majority of Americans. This is very dangerous for an American public who is often too trusting of the pharmaceutical industry, and the medical profession. It is also immensely sad that for those who lost a child, a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a favorite uncle. They continue to grieve while the rest of the world seems oblivious to their pain and suffering.
If those with the power to inform neglect their responsibility, we as a people are standing on the precipice of even more pharmaceutical-driven ruinations to come.