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Side Effects


We humans have always needed cures, whether they are of the body, the mind or the soul. And in our desperation we have turned to the most unlikely of sources and placebos.

The Talmud, for all its weight of law, ideas, and debate, lists the most unbelievable, improbable, and weird cures you could imagine: the burnt placenta of black cats, wild roosters cut with silver coins, pigeons on your chest, to name a few. They make the witches of Macbeth look like amateurs.

Medicine has always been a significant part of our tradition. Many rabbis were expert doctors. Shmuel, for example, was an expert in anatomy, cardiology, dermatology, embryology, gastroenterology, obstetrics, ophthalmology, pediatrics, urology, and faith healing. Maimonides, the greatest Jewish doctor of all, wrote over 10 books on medicine and ignored almost all of the Talmudic cures.

The issue of whether we should leave all such matters up to God can be found in the Torah: “I am God who heals you” (Exodus 15:26). Yet in the Talmud it says very clearly that we may make use of human healers (TB Brachot 60a). Every day we pray, “Heal us God, and we will be healed,” which seems tautologous. My late father probably contracted the leukemia that killed him from the drugs he was given to cure an earlier attack of pleurisy. He liked to say that when humans cure they often cause unwanted results as well. Only God’s cure is without negative side effects.

There is much in medicine of all kinds that I do not understand. I know faith healing can work sometimes, so can the blessings of rabbis, but always unevenly, inconsistently, and with limited pathologies. It seems homeopathy works often, but it doesn’t make sense to me. Acupuncture has a method to it I can understand, but I still find it hard to believe all of its claims. I do not believe one should forswear modern medicine. I am eclectic and believe we should try all sorts of options. And I do agree that sometimes pharmaceutical drugs work effectively and efficiently too.

But I am very suspicious of drug companies and their influence on governments and doctors. I worry about the drastic side effects of many drugs that are allowed on the market. In the USA daily we are bombarded by adverts for drugs probably more than any other product. Which proves how financially significant the market is. Of course I understand that drug companies need profits to fund research. But it seems to me that there is a tendency towards overprescription and overdependency on so many chemical drugs.

Every advert for a pharmaceutical drug comes with an obligatory list of rushed-through or minutely printed side effects. They are so frightening that I really do not understand why people insist on taking them.

Let me give you some random examples that I have recently noticed:

Humira is recommended for psoriatic arthritis, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. It lists the following serious side effects: “TB and infections caused by viruses, fungi, or bacteria. Symptoms related to TB include a cough, low-grade fever, weight loss, or loss of body fat and muscle. Symptoms include muscle aches, feeling very tired, dark urine, skin or eyes that look yellow, little or no appetite, vomiting, clay-colored bowel movements, fever, chills, stomach discomfort, and skin rash, hives, trouble breathing, and swelling of face, eyes, lips, or mouth, numbness or tingling, problems with vision, weakness in arms or legs, dizziness, bruising or bleeding, looking very pale, heart failure, immune reactions, a lupus-like syndrome, liver problems, red scaly patches or raised bumps that are filled with pus.”

Xarelto is recommended for people with high blood pressure. But “people with atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart beat) are at an increased risk of forming a blood clot in the heart, which can travel to the brain, causing a stroke, or to other parts of the body. It can cause bleeding, which can be serious, and rarely may lead to death. Call your doctor or get medical help right away if you develop any of these signs or symptoms of bleeding: Unexpected bleeding or bleeding that lasts a long time, headaches, feeling dizzy or weak, pain, swelling, or new drainage at wound sites,” etc., etc.

Zithromax is an antibiotic useful for treating bacterial infections. Its instructions include: “Get emergency medical help if you have any of these signs of an allergic reaction to Zithromax: hives; difficulty breathing; swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat, diarrhea that is watery or bloody, headache with chest pain and severe dizziness, fainting, fast or pounding heartbeats, nausea, upper stomach pain, itching, loss of appetite, dark urine, clay-colored stools, jaundice yellowing of the skin or eyes” and another 80 different symptoms.

To be fair, they are all listed on the internet by the companies themselves. Perhaps they need to cover themselves from the efforts of eager lawyers. But who in their right mind would want to risk these side effects? You might be safer going to an ordinary witchdoctor.

We have become a civilization of drug takers, pill poppers. Almost every kid is on Ritalin. Half of America is addicted to painkillers, even when the pain has long gone. This is all symptomatic of a consumer society gone mad.

No, I do not advocate Christian Science, which avoids medical intervention in favor of prayer. And I think parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated on principle are potential child-killers. (Ben Franklin learned this the hard way. He wrote, “In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation.”)

But seriously, we really need to know much more about what we ingest than we do, and we should not assume all doctors know best or that they were not taken on a free golfing holiday in order to recommend prescribing the stuff. When in the Torah God said, “If you behave well, I will not let the diseases of Egypt affect you,” perhaps He was referring to side effects!

4 thoughts on “Side Effects

  1. I remember my late husband giving a lecture in Korea about why certain drugs used in psychiatry should be used only over short periods of time and be carefully monitored during those times. A doctor rose at the end of his talk and said' "I have had patients on these drugs for 25 years with no ill effects". Sid, my husband, looked heavenwards but answer came there none.

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