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Blinded by magic bullets

MagazineSeptember 1995 (Vol. 6 Issue 6)Blinded by magic bullets

A tragedy has occurred in medicine

A tragedy has occurred in medicine. It is all because doctors have been so blinded by the brave new world of pharmacy they've been unwilling to believe that a cheap, reliable solution to a condition that kills thousands of people has been in their

Two landmark prestigious studies one from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the other from Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford published more or less simultaneously have proved that magnesium both prevents and successfully treats eclampsia far better than any drug, including benzodiazepines like diazepam (Valium) or anti-convulsants like phenytoin (The Lancet, June 10, 1995 and The N Eng J Med, July 27, 1995 see opposite). The results were stunning. In the UK study, women taking magnesium had half the convulsions of those given diazepam and two-thirds fewer convulsions than those given anti-convulsions drugs specifically designed for these very symptoms. Seizures from eclampsia, caused by high blood pressure in pregnant women, kill 50,000 women a year, mainly in Third World countries but, to a lesser extent, here in the West. Of course, many of their babies die, too.

The outrage of it is that the information about magnesium is very old news. It's been known for 90 years that magnesium can prevent eclampsia in pregnant women with high blood pressure. As early as 1906, small doses of magnesium sulphate were injected into women to prevent seizures. Studies were also done in the Twenties and Thirties in the States; in fact, in 1933, hundreds of women with pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure before fits occur) received shots at the Los Angeles General Hospital to prevent recurrent seizures. It is widely used in the US; indeed, most authorities in North America now recommend the use of magnesium sulphate to prevent eclamptic seizure during labour.

Nevertheless, in Britain, and elsewhere, many doctors wrote off magnesium as primitive solution, akin to boiling water during labour, and instead were bewitched by a new class of anti-convulsants like phenytoin, or opted for good old, all-purpose Valium. Anti-convulsants were also given to women with severe pre-eclampsia in order to prevent the first fit, although it was never very clear whether this did more harm than good (The Lancet, June 10, 1995).

The tragedy is the number of dead in the wake of this relentless desire for "progress". Eclampsia has killed four million women since the time when doctors had evidence that magnesium would prevent eclamptic convulsions. Many of those women live in Third-World countries where anti-convulsion medication and tranquillizers are too expensive. Magnesium is cheap and easy to produce, and yet even today, it hasn't yet made it on the World Health Organization's essential drug list. And of course no one bothered to factor in the potential of diazepam or phenytoin to cause birth defects, compared with magnesium, which poses no such risk.

All these women and children are dead precisely because doctors refused to be scientific about it all. In their rush to find a whizzy new magic bullet, they introduced drugs which sounded plausible, and discarded the established therapy, despite the scientific evidence in its favour, because it didn't fit in with their prejudices. Once again, medicine fails, not because it didn't have the solution but because doctors refused to acknowledge it.

!ALynne McTaggart


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