Friday, November 16, 2007

High on life: the biggest health care fraud in history?

As a new study suggests treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with drugs can do more harm than good, one lifelong 'sufferer' questions whether the condition even exists.

It was probably nailing my teacher’s coat to the desk while he was still wearing it that did it. That and glueing his packet of peanuts to the classroom ceiling, at a precisely-calculated five millimetres beyond his furthest reach.

It was the climax of what I – and most of my pre-teen classmates – considered a sustained comedy campaign, a bit of light-hearted high-jinx designed to redress the teacher-student balance of power. It wasn’t my first and nor would it be my last, even though this particular incident triggered a catastrophic sense of humour failure in said faculty member, who mysteriously vanished overnight.

Had I been born a decade or so later, I doubt I’d be writing this today. Rather than spending almost 20 years inventing new ways to terrorise a succession of teachers, lecturers and employers – fuelling other forms of creativity, including writing, in the process – I’d have been given a massive dose of Ritalin and left in a corner to rot.

Ancient roots

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), described by Hippocrates as early as 493BC, is billed by the modern medical fraternity as a neurological disorder usually characterised – especially in children – by inattentiveness, restlessness, forgetfulness and hyperactivity. Genetic in nature, it affects around five per cent of the world’s population and is often treated with a combination of medications, behaviour modification, lifestyle changes and counselling.

In 1999, a study in the US concluded that, after a period of 12 months, medication was more effective in the treatment of ADHD than behavioural therapy. In the years since, prescriptions in the UK have tripled. Around 500,000 children in Britain are currently believed to have ADHD. Of those, 55,000 are on medication, at an annual cost to the NHS of roughly £28m.

Recent revelation

But new research – by the authors of the original study – suggests drugs don’t work in the long-term and, alarmingly, their impact may actually be negative. Take 14-year-old Craig Buxton, whose family kept a video diary of his behaviour. The footage, which was screened on Panorama, shows in shocking detail his night terrors, explosive tantrums and relentless acts of aggression. At one point, Craig breaks down and cries: “Why am I like this, mum? I don’t want to feel like this, I don’t want to be like this. Help me.” He has been taking ADHD medication for a decade.

Critics are now questioning whether this so-called chronic developmental disorder is really a disorder at all. Dr Fred Baughman, a child neurologist on the other side of the Atlantic, has spent his professional life examining hundreds of children supposedly suffering from ADHD – and has found nothing abnormal or diseased about them. Nor has he found any hard evidence to suggest ADHD is actually a disease, or that it needs any treatment other than willpower, love and support. As he puts it, “it is the biggest health care fraud in history.”

An expert opines

Speaking to MSN UK News, Dr Baughman said: “I have discovered and described real diseases and, having examined hundreds said to have this ‘disorder’ or ‘disease’, I have Fred Baughman found nothing wrong, abnormal or diseased about them. I have also found no proof in the medical scientific literature of the world that ADHD is an objective, demonstrable abnormality, disease or disorder. It is the biggest health care fraud in history.

“The bigger-than-ADHD picture is that they – psychiatry in collusion with Big Pharma – have pledged to call all emotional and behavioural, psychological or mental symptoms ‘diseases’ due to chemical imbalances of the brain, needing not willpower, not love, support or adaptability, but ‘chemical balancers’ – in other words, pills.”

Cash cow

A conspiracy theory? Perhaps. But when drug-making leviathans in the US (the pursuit-of-superficial-perfection capital of the world) have dedicated ADHD sales forces, you can’t help but wonder who’s really creating the demand. One thing is beyond question: there is an awful lot of money to be made selling drugs – and not just the illegal ones. In the current climate of offspring-as-accessories, any quick-fix for children perceived as less than perfect is unlikely to gather any dust on the shelves.

There are, of course, some children who genuinely need pharmaceutical intervention. However, more often than not, this so-called disorder is really the result of combining excessively spirited children with criminally sub-standard parenting skills – quite the Molotov cocktail. In cases where a child becomes disruptive due to lack of parental care, affection or stimulation, the impairment belongs not to the child, but to the surrounding adults.

Simply semantics

Let’s take another look at those symptoms listed earlier: inattentiveness, restlessness, forgetfulness and hyperactivity. In non-medical speak: fidgeting, forgetting things, talking excessively, running around a lot and being easily distracted. What child isn’t? The problem here is one of perspective. I was thrilled to be alive and found my teachers’ monotonous tones, disinterest in their subject and failure to challenge me a total turn-off. They, in turn, found me disruptive (which I was: it helped relieve the brain-putrefying boredom).

But the real concern isn’t the noisy kids vaulting over furniture and terrorising their teachers (within reason), it’s the quiet children who are completely incapable of engaging with the people around them: the silent insular ones, who go unnoticed by society until they massacre their school mates.

If I ever have children (which I won’t), and they turn out to be unusually spirited (which they would), I like to think I’d turn not to pharmaceutical drug barons, but to Hippocrates, who described people exhibiting ADHD-type behaviour as “restless souls” with a simple “overbalance of fire over water.” The physician-scientist’s remedy for this overbalance? “Barley rather than wheat bread, fish rather than meat, water drinks, and many natural and diverse physical activities.' Beats being doped up to the eyeballs any day.

An opinion piece by Laura J Snook, MSN UK News Editor November 13, 2007

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