Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Snake Oil

During my bus ride home yesterday, a man got up, went to the front, and started to speak to the passengers. These bus speeches are pretty common. Ninety percent of the time the speaker is either talking about Jesus or selling something. This guy was selling medicine. He started off talking about how we need to take care of ourselves, how we get tired and run-down, we can have nervous attacks or trouble sleeping, or just feel worn out. “Well,” he said, “I have a solution for all of you, ladies and gentlemen. Here in my bag I have a wonderful cure for what ails you.” He pulled out a small box. “This, my friends, is what you have been looking for. Inside of this box you will find a syringe, a fresh syringe with a new, clean needle. Inside the syringe is a powerful vitamin.” This man is selling do-it-yourself intramuscular injections of vitamins on a bus. What?!

He went on, “When you inject yourself with this vitamin, my friends, you will feel 100% better. You will feel fresh, young, healthy, and happy. And how much, my friends, do you think this injection would cost in a pharmacy? I invite you, friends, to go and ask. Ask them how much an injection like this will cost. They will tell you, my friends, they will tell you $140 cordobas. That is how much this medicine will cost you if you want to go out and buy it in a store. But I am offering you this wonderful injection, this amazing cure, for only 50 cordobas. And if you buy two, my friends, I will throw a third one in for free.”

Then he pulled out a pamphlet. “But please, my friends, if you’re going to use these vitamins don’t do it until you have cleansed yourself of parasites. I want you to look here at this drawing. This worm, my friends, he lives in your stomach. He has five mouths, he eats and eats and eats, and he never gets full. And this little animal, this is the amoeba. He attacks you when you drink milk. And this one, this one lives in the flesh of the pig. Those who have epilepsy, who suffer from nervousness, they have this worm. And there are many others, my friends.” He indicated a plethora of other drawings of worms and microbes. “So if you are going to take this vitamin, please, please, kill these parasites first. This medicine here” – he produced another box – “will rid you of all these creatures. Do I have any takers? The senora here, yes, and here this man, anyone else?”

He went walking through the bus handing out the boxes. I took one of each, just to look and see exactly what he was selling so I could look it up later at home. The injection was a vitamin B cocktail – B1, B6, and B12. The parasite med was called albendazole. When I got home I went straight to my shelf and pulled out the book Where There Is No Doctor, which is a great medical reference manual for places like where I live. The parasite medication this man was selling works for a variety of worms, which I guess is good if that’s what you’ve got. But it doesn’t work on the two most common parasites in Nicaragua – amoebas and giardia. Not to mention that a lot of what he was saying about the parasites he did mention was flat-out wrong.

But the vitamin is the truly appalling part of his package for wellness. Let me quote from several sections of Where There Is No Doctor. First, from the part about vitamin B12: “This is mentioned only to discourage its use. Vitamin B12 is useful only for a rare type of anemia that is almost never found except in some persons over 35 years whose ancestors are from northern Europe…Do not waste your money on vitamin B12 or let a doctor or health worker give it to you unless a blood analysis has been done, and it has been shown that you have pernicious anemia.”

And from a section called “The Most Dangerous Misuse of Medicine”:

“The common belief that injections are usually better than medicine taken by mouth is not true. Many times medicines taken by mouth work as well as or better than injections. Also, most medicine is more dangerous when injected than when taken by mouth. Injections given to a child who has a mild polio infection can lead to paralysis. Use of injections should be very limited.”

Later, in a section entitled “Medicines Not to Inject”, the first entry is “Vitamins.” “Rarely are injected vitamins any better than vitamins taken by mouth. Injections are more expensive and more dangerous.” Just below, B12 is given special mention. “Injecting [B12] can cause abscesses or dangerous reactions (shock).”

To bill this medication as a cure-all, to suggest that it is good for people to buy a few packages and inject away, is absolutely unconscionable. I can’t believe it is legal (and I’m pretty sure it is. Even if it isn’t, it is quite common) for any old schmo to buy a carton of vitamin B injections and hand them out willy-nilly to unsuspecting poor farmers. It doesn’t help matters that people around here tend to be injection happy. I wanted to stand up myself and tell people not to waste their money or put their health at risk by listening to this snake-oil salesman. Maybe next time I’ll work up the nerve to do it.

1 comment:

Susan Harris said...

Sounds a bit scary. But, just wanted to say that I had to inject vitamin B12, after failing to get my levels close to normal with pills. So, it is prescribed in some instances, but like you said, only with a diagnosis of pernicious anemia or unexplained extremely low B12 levels.