Drugs for kids: “How to sell a disease”

Luc Hermann gave a seminar on how corporates dodge tax during day two of power reporting. Photo: Ray Mahlaka.

Luc Hermann speaks about the marketing strategies of Big Pharma in selling drugs to children.  Photo: Ray Mahlaka.

French journalist, Luc Hermann has made a career out of deconstructing “spin”.

Hermann, (@LucHermann) talked yesterday about how big pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs” at Power Reporting: The African Investigative Journalism Conference.

Hermann’s 90-minute CNN documentary: How to sell a disease investigates the multinational drug company, Pfizer, and how they managed to get doctors and reporters across the world to help them sell anti-depressant drugs to children.

Suicidal effects

His investigation started by looking into the case of a teenage boy in the US who committed suicide two days after taking the drug, Zoloft. Zoloft, which is an equivalent to the adult anti-depressant popularly known as Prozac, which is predominantly prescribed for the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

In launching the drug, Pfizer released statistics which showed that up to 200 000 children in France could possibly suffer from undiagnosed OCD. The statistics had the effect of causing alarm among parents and doctors who worried that they may have overlooked the signs of the disorder.

Hermann says, “In the press, Zoloft can be prescribed to kids as early as six years old.”

Playing with statistics 

Pfizer’s statistics showed that one to two per cent of children are affected by OCD. Hermann says the disease makes basic functioning incredibly difficult for the sufferer. Children with OCD have difficulties to focus, have problems with anxiety and have obsessions with routines.

It makes it hard for them to learn and can make life very frustrating. These statistics allowed Pfizer to draw the conclusion that one child in every class in France could be affected by OCD.

The forced insider

The family of the boy who took his life after taking Zoloft took Pfizer to court. Their lawyer made contact with Dr David Healy, whom Hermann calls the “forced insider” in his documentary.

Healy was the key reviewer of data that found that Pfizer had noticed instances of suicidal tendencies by patients who took their anti-depressant drugs.

“If a child is diagnosed with OCD they will be hospitalised and treated under strict circumstances and then, yes, doctors will prescribe Zoloft or Prozac in order for kids to deal with their condition.

These decisions though are beyond the scope of the role of the general practitioner and if a prescription is issued at this point the patient should be carefully monited.

“Doctors will say that you have to monitor the patient for the first seven days of taking the drug, but no-one told the family of the boy this,” says Hermann.

Journalists get taken-in

Hermann’s investigations revealed that Pfizer targeted journalists and major media outlets who they invited to events and press related trips that were “quite appealing”.

The company fed information to reporters about the prevalence of the disease and the benefits of their drugs.

The Prime Time News (PTF1) channel in France aired a programme where they discussed how this disease affected children. “This programme was aired to about eight million people in France,” Hermann says.

None of the 25 journalists ever revealed that they were taken on an all expenses paid trip to Istanbul by Pfizer.

Hermann warns journalists that they should always be aware of how they are influenced and also of possible links between reporters and major companies.

Free-for-all drugs

Hermann ended his talk off by saying that six million children in the United States take these kinds of drugs, mostly Ritalin, for attention deficit disorder (ADD) and then Zoloft and Prozac. “What is most shocking is that some cases the schools have the power to prescribe these drugs, not only doctors.”

“These pharmaceutical companies have no idea how it affects children in the long run.” Hermann stresses that he wishes he did more to confront journalists who published articles endorsing the use of these drugs and who were effectively “spun” by Pfizers public relations team.

A healthy dose of reality

Fifth year Wits medical students have learnt some harsh lessons about the conditions at public hospitals this year, after doing their practicals at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital.


“The shortage of resources and supplies is a real concern for me,” said Massillon Phasha. Doctors had to improvise and work with whatever was available, she said, because they did not have the necessary equipment and medicine. This meant patients did not get the best treatment possible.

“The lab tests one can request are limited and results for specimens sent for pathology assessment take a long time to get back. All these factors largely influence the management of the patients.

Concerns voiced

“I have voiced my concerns to the doctors, but unfortunately there is not much that they can do about it because this is largely due to shortage of funds. So unless we can get the government to give the hospitals more money, there is almost nothing we can do,” said Pasha.

Keabetsoe Phello said she had never voiced her concerns as she was too scared.

Daily activities

Medical students go to the academic hospital as part of their fifth year studies, but do not manage patients.

“We help where we can under supervision from a doctor, but our duty in the hospital is to learn,” said Pasha.

On a typical day the students do everything from being tutored by doctors on specific subjects to running basic diagnostic tests, and they could even assist in delivering a baby, depending what rounds they are doing that day.

Despite the poor conditions, students appreciate the learning experience. Pasha said she was grateful to be at Charlotte Maxeke because she was able to learn a lot. She said she believed the doctors were doing their best despite the difficult working conditions.

Phello said she loved being part of a team and getting a “sneak peak as to what life after med school entails”.

All hospitals had problems when it came to resources and facilities, she said. But despite these, and the fact that medical students work hard, with no pay, she still loved her job.

“I could never imagine myself doing anything else. In some cases we do almost the same amount of work as the interns, yet we do not get paid. And some other medical disciplines, pharmacy and nurses to name a few, get paid a wage for working.”

The students will be stationed at the hospital until November 2014.