Monday, February 18, 2008

The Medicated Child

I just watched a PBS Frontline investigation called The Medicated Child. Why do we use technology? In this case, for health.

Mental conditions once diagnosed only rarely in children are now identified in millions of US children. And we have technology--drugs--to treat them. Few systems are as complex as our bodies and few experiments are less controlled than medicating mental conditions.

One doctor was filmed prescribing drugs for children just a few years old. Interviewed afterward, he described the process as an experiment because there was insufficient data about what worked. After the newsmagazine 60 Minutes reported on a four-year-old dying from the drug their son was using, the family returned to the doctor to ask for alternatives to drugs. The doctor explained that 99% of addressing the boy's condition is with drugs and that alternatives, like therapy, can't work when the child can't control his impulses. I was impressed with his 99% confidence level, given that he's simply experimenting on this child, increasing dosage levels and introducing new drugs. The doctor was not asked, nor did he volunteer, how he predicts or accounts for synergistic effects of five or more simultaneous drugs.

Frontline noted that over time far more children have been diagnosed with mental conditions that require treatment (e.g. bipolar disorder increased 4000% in 10 years). On their website (not in the video), they suggest this is because diagnostics have simply improved. Supposedly, children have suffered from these conditions for centuries or millennia. On their website, they do add that
...some [experts] even speculate that environmental factors are playing a role in triggering childhood bipolar.

Since our fantastically intricate bodies are built from what we ingest and absorb from our environment, I would be surprised if our environment did not have a large influence. And yet, nobody commented on the food the children ate. One little girl bicycled to a convenience store and bought ice cream sandwiches. A four-year-old boy was fed corndogs, Goldfish crackers, a cookie, and Gatorade for lunch. Perhaps the antipsychotic drug (sounded like Rispordal) he was taking for bipolar disorder provided him all the nutrients he was missing from fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as whole grains. I find it hard not to be sarcastic, even though I know that seldom translates well in a blog.

The worried parents did not appear to consider diet, nor did the doctors ask. I'm sure there are plenty of other children eating junk food who do not present ADHD or bipolar. But if I were a parent, desperate to help my child, the first, safest, quickest, and cheapest step would be to provide a nutritious diet.

If I fueled and oiled my car with junk gasoline and junk oil, bearing little resemblance to good gasoline and good oil, I would not expect my car to run well, if at all. And I would not go to my mechanic seeking an expensive and experimental treatment so that I could continue to misfeed my car.

Let me pause to emphasize that this blog contains the technological literacy musings of KnowledgeContext's Executive Director Miguel F. Aznar, who is not a medical doctor. The blog does not necessarily represent the position of the nonprofit corporation KnowlegeContext or its supporters.

Disclaimer made, it appears to me that if we better understood our technology, and perhaps drew some parallels to our own bodies, we would take a very different approach to using pharmaceutical technology on our children. Or on ourselves. Click on the comments link just below to post yours.

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