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Drugged Out 

Published July 17, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my copy of Newsweek the other day and saw that Prozac, “America’s favorite antidepressant” and boon to boomers everywhere, “may have no meaningful pharmacological effect at all.” Indeed, Prozac and its chemically similar relatives on the prescription drug market may be “little better than sugar pills” in relieving depression.

Wow! According to a recent study, Prozac outperformed placebos by a mere 20 percent, with a great deal of confusion still in the air as to what, exactly, it was 20 percent of — the mind? the soul? the heart? Seven million Americans are currently taking Prozac, Zoloft or Paxil, the big three of the SSRI’s — selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors — which only recently promised to revolutionize the human experience by eliminating depression altogether. “Have the drugs been overhyped?” Newsweek wonders, before answering its own question as only a corporate mouthpiece can: “It’s not that simple.”

Well, of course it’s not. For one thing — as Newsweek finally gets around to reporting at the end of its story — people on Prozac seem to do better over the long term than people on candy: “Those getting only a placebo response soon return to their misery.” For another, Prozac still rakes in $2.5 billion in annual sales for its manufacturer, Eli Lilly. “And no one is suggesting that drugmakers start bottling sugar pills,” Newsweek adds nervously. The pharmaceutical giants are already taking a hit on Wall Street for pushing estrogen on so many meno-pausal women; and with their patents expiring and generic rivals on the march — well, there’s no telling what might happen to the stock market!

You’ll forgive me if I look at these life-and-death issues solely in terms of money. I’m not alone. Another story in Newsweek reports on the overabundance of remedies for “acid reflux” — a.k.a. heartburn — warning that “some HMOs now balk at covering the pricey pills.” That’s $10.2 billion a year the pharmaceuticals may have to do without, poor things, since drugs for the stomach enjoy sales second only to drugs for elevated lipids and cholesterol. And at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona last week, the only message that cut through the grim statistics concerned dollars, dollars and dollars — how many, from whom, to whom and for what.

“Experts say that rich nations need to donate $10 billion a year” in order to battle AIDS effectively, says CBS News: “Current spending stands at about $2.8 billion.” In a grotesque appearance alongside former South African President Nelson Mandela, former president Bill Clinton vowed “to get more money” and “more action” for the fight, and asked that he be “held accountable” if he failed in this mission.

Can you imagine? According to The New York Times, Clinton “regretted” that he hadn’t done more to combat AIDS while he had the chance, and “said he did not know how anyone could explain how the world had let a preventable disease infect 40 million people and threaten to infect nearly 100 million in a few years.”

Well, I know. “The world” allowed AIDS to happen because most of those 40 million infected people have dark skin, vaginas and no money instead of sex education and effective contraception. They also live in what the United States likes to call “developing” nations — that is to say, they’re completely expendable in the economic picture and, from a purely fiscal point of view, the more dead, the better.

Even here, in the land of the free and the home of the dumb, the majority of new HIV infections will be found among African-Americans — women first, followed closely by intravenous drug users and “gay and bisexual men of color.” All of whom, by common morality, deserve whatever fate is coming to them and decrease the cost of mass incarceration by dying at a tender age.

The stories you read in the papers about a resurgence of infection in the affluent, white, gay communities of San Francisco, New York, Miami and Los Angeles are all designed to disguise this fact. If you doubt it, just listen to Joep Lange, president of the International AIDS Society, pleading for assistance in Barcelona: “If we can get Coca-Cola and cold beer to every remote corner of Africa, it should not be impossible to do the same with drugs.”

By way of full disclosure, I’m one of the few HIV-positive people on Earth who got some good news last week. Because I’m white, male and live in a “developed” country, I’ll have access to a new drug, should I need it: the long-awaited “T-20,” which promises to give HIV another run for its money even when the virus has become resistant to all other treatments on the market.

So, I have a few more years of life. Lucky me. I don’t agree with President Bush when he impatiently tells reporters, “I believe people have taken a step back and asked, ‘What’s important in life?’ You know, the bottom line and this corporate America stuff, is that important? Or is serving your neighbor, loving your neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself?”

That would all depend on who your neighbors are. Bush’s are rather exclusively billionaires. Nor does this “compassionate” cretin — a born-again Christian, by his own account — seem to know the difference between the Word of God and the Golden Rule. Jesus never instructed that you love your neighbor “like you’d like to be loved yourself.” He asked that you love your neighbor as yourself, without reference to black and white, us and them, rich and poor, sick and well. Put that in your “developmental pipeline” and crunch it, suckers.

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Peter Kurth


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