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The bargain we make with Western medicine

June 10, 2009

Well this is the moment of truth: taking my last Levofloxacin and Metronidazole tablets this morning.  As they work out of my system I’ll find out if we were successful in beating the infection.  Though I’m nervous, I won’t miss the meds.

Metronidazole is not terribly difficult but Levofloxacin has two kinds of side effects; nasty and horrifying.  I’ve been experiencing some of the nasty ones like severe dizziness and fractured sleep. The horrifying (but also rare) side-effects are a crapshoot in that they can manifest months after therapy, and include irreversible peripheral neuropathy and “Achilles tendon rupture”.  But it is prescribed for “severe and life-threatening infections”.1

There are a lot of Faustian bargains like that in the pharmacopoeia of Western medicine, some of them much worse.  You accept a substance into your body that you’d normally not even think about taking, in the hopes of avoiding an even worse fate.  There are a lot of variables and thus, no guarantees.  But there is a body of evidence, there’s a review process, and a reporting system so that the results of using the drug are aggregated into the body of knowledge about it.

It’s natural – pun intended – for some people to want to resort to “alternative medicine” for even very severe illnesses.  If you look at the mortality rate in traditional cultures, particularly for acute illnesses, this is a bad bet. 

Over-the-counter medicines are another kettle of fish entirely.  Generally considered to be safe because hey, they wouldn’t sell it out on the shelf if it weren’t, right?  But there’s a better-than-even chance that routine aspirin use played a role in getting me where I am now.  Aspirin that I was advised to take by my neurologist so the system is far from perfect.

So I am guardedly optimistic, whatever the heck that means.  At least as the drugs work their way out of my system, I may rediscover some interest in food.  I’ve been struggling to take in a thousand calories a day.  In the long haul I will be working to reduce whatever risk factors are under my control; this must never. happen. again.


  1. I couldn’t help wondering if there are any “mild life-threatening infections”.  Sorry, it just struck me as funny.

  2. ***Dave has found a truly reliable source of medical advice in Cheating Death
  3. Abel Pharmboy on Edzard Ernst on CAM Pseudexperts
  4. Stupid Evil Bastard: Ten years and $2.5bn shows that “alternative” medicines don’t cure jack…
  5. Answers.com on African Traditional Medicine and Chinese Traditional Medicine
  6. Video: Superstition Kills
  7. Thread made of crab shells and polyester can stitch together broken nerves


  1. June 11, 2009 at 21:11 | #1

    Do you have any data source citations that study mortality rates in primitive cultures and the use of “alternative” medicine?  (It’s not “alternative” medicine to them!)  I’m not disputing, I’m just wondering about whether anyone has actually measured causality and efficacy rather than just correlation.

    As some traditional treatments are now being recognized by Western medical science and as more(?) pharmaceuticals are being discovered based on their naturally-occurring base component, I think it could be a fascinating area for investigation.

    Another area that fascinates me is the psychological component of healing.  Specifically, how mindfulness practice and deep meditation can contribute to health and healing.

  2. June 11, 2009 at 21:18 | #2

    First I looked at Metronidazole, then Levofloxacin.  The former was enough to scare me a bit, but holy crap!  Thinking positive thoughts … and “non-thoughts”.

  3. June 11, 2009 at 21:44 | #3

    I will be very happy to see you healthy on the other side of all this. It’s really all I know to say.

  4. June 12, 2009 at 07:24 | #4

    Ah, side effects.  Always funny.

    Actually, the best perspective I ever got on side effects was from a doctor, to wit: there are no side effects, there are only effects.  What we hope for is that the effect we want does the job and the effects we don’t want are manageable.

    At any rate, keeping you in my thoughts and prayers and the like.

  5. June 14, 2009 at 09:38 | #5

    Thanks Justice, ***Dave!  Funny, someone else said that thing about “effects” to me the other day.  Makes a lot of sense.


    Do you have any data source citations that study mortality rates in primitive cultures and the use of “alternative” medicine?  (It’s not “alternative” medicine to them!)  I’m not disputing, I’m just wondering about whether anyone has actually measured causality and efficacy rather than just correlation.

    I found a couple, put them in the Notes section of this post.

    Penicillin came from mold, but there are countless medicines that came from looking at natural molecules in living things.  Tamoxifen (chemotherapy for breast cancer) came from Yew bark, for example.  There may be antibiotic properties in the slime of sea slugs; it’s being investigated. Ditto for alligator blood and various flowers and insects in the rainforest (while we still have one).

    Hell, the enzyme that makes polymerase chain reactions possible at the higher temperatures of PCR thermocyclers came from an extremophile bacteria in a hot springs – in Yellowstone, I think.

    What you’re describing specifically is ethnopharmacology, which is a smoking-hot field for the drug companies.  Lots of these molecules come from remedies in traditional societies.  There are now international treaties to protect the rights of traditional healers in their discoveries.  How well they’re enforced is anybody’s guess.

    I read up on African traditional medicine and it certainly has some merit.  But if I’d been injured by an auto accident (or gored by a hippo) I’d want a modern hospital, thank you. The traditional healer isn’t going to be able to save you in that eventuality.

    The definitional problem is that when an alternative medicine is shown to be effective even when accounting for the placebo effect, we stop calling it “alternative medicine.”  It isn’t alternative anymore, so we just call it “medicine”.  The body of proven medical information continues to grow, and more importantly when something is bogus, it can be disproven. It doesn’t just hang on for cultural reasons like it used to. At least, not indefinitely.

    I often see ads for “natural” medicine and that dichotomy bothers me.  Rattlesnake venom is natural.  Some herbs are very powerful – hence their attraction for drug companies – but uncontrolled doses of any powerful medicine are chancy.  Especially when it hasn’t been studied in a double-blind test.  Otherwise the explanations are just making stuff up.

    Both the US and Great Britain spend big taxpayer bucks studying CAM, or “Complimentary and Alternative Medicine” (see Notes with new links for this post).  For the most part, the studies have found exactly bupkiss, but a few things that merit further attention.  That’s about what you’d expect.

    The biggest problem with Western medicine is not scientific but cultural; our culture values the magic bullet over prevention.  Trouble is, by the time it gets to bullets of any kind, the doctor has to shoot very straight and anyway it might be too late. One thing I noticed in hospital is that they’re going to extremes to make sure they give you the medicine that your doctor prescribed for you, when it was supposed to be given. 

    Some individuals have developed a degree of conscious control of their mind-body connection.  How useful that can be for general medicine, I don’t know but at minimum, I’d like people to be aware of when they are weak and should get stronger.  Our ancient ancestors did not evolve with elevators or automobiles; we are way too dependent on machines to move around.

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