Letters

Sometimes a new 'wonder drug' is only a wonder drug because physicians do not yet know its potential to harm'

By Paul Wallich|Monday, November 01, 1999
potential to harm'

Adventures in Fine Dining

Your August article about pill bugs ["How Now, Sow Bug?"] was a pleasant surprise for me and, I suppose, for many of my isopodologist colleagues. I would like to add some information on the uses of these special animals. While doing the field work for my Ph.D., I learned from an old woman from the Aegean island of Seriphos that in older times they used to make a powder from the rather big and massive Mediterranean species Armadillidum officianalis. This was eaten to cure stomachaches (I assume due to the high calcium concentration of its cuticula). Also, Chater (Isopoda, 2: 21Ð39, 1988: "Woodlice in the Cultural Consciousness of Modern Europe") cites a reference from Larousse Gastronomique on a sauce made from wood lice ("sauce de cloportes"), and he refers to the monograph "Oniscographia Curiosa" by Philip Fraundorffer (1700), which reviews the known uses of wood lice in medicine and elsewhere. Finally, it should be mentioned that the painter Paul Klee has devoted two pictures to these animals, Assel and Assel im Gehege (Assel is the German and Dutch word for wood louse).

A minor correction: The respiratory system of most species does not really involve a modified gill, "supplemented . . . with a tube system for breathing in air." Some of the pleopods (appendages of the pleon, or "belly") are either used as respiratory surfaces per se, or are modified to serve as a unique kind of lung that is hollow and functions in a way quite different than the tube system (tracheae) of insects.

Dr. Spyros Sfenthourakis
Zoological Museum
Department of Biology
University of Athens
Greece
Happiness Is a Smart Gun

A smart gun in the hands of a sick and hate-filled user will kill children just as efficiently as the old-fashioned dumb guns ["Smart Guns Don't Kill Kids," September]. As I write this, the news media are announcing the surrender of a white supremacist accused of shooting children in Los Angeles. I'm sure he felt his guns were as smart as they had to be.

Mike Dougherty
Via the Internet
Drugs on the Market

Where drugs are concerned, new does not always mean improved, as Tony Dajer correctly points out in "When Pills Kill" [Vital Signs, August]. Sometimes a new "wonder drug" is only a wonder drug because physicians haven't had much experience using it and, as a result, do not yet know its potential to harm. Dajer's warning that physicians shouldn't be too enamored of drugs simply because they are new is well-founded.

I believe, however, that it is appropriate to direct this same warning to patients. Drug companies now advertise directly to patients, and, as a result, physicians are under increasing pressure from patients to prescribe new medications. Physicians and patients alike need to avoid making the assumption that new drugs are always more effective and safer than their predecessors.

R. Bruce Jobe, M.D.
Folsom, Calif.

Members of the medical profession overlook or simply neglect one of the best partners they could have in patient care: the pharmacist. Not once in his article did Tony Dajer mention consulting this local drug expert.

Mistakes in medication can be devastating. But I'm sure if you ask pharmacists practicing today, they would say that the number of mistakes they have made pales in comparison with the number of mistakes they have seen physicians make. Those mistakes occur either in medication dosages or in prescribing medications that interact with those a patient is receiving from another physician.

In recent Gallup polls, pharmacists have been ranked number one in the public's eye as the most-trusted professionals. Perhaps physicians' eyes, too, will one day open to a partnership that benefits the most important part of the health care triangle--the patient.

Walter B. Lupo, Registered Pharmacist
Via the Internet
Rock and Roll Isn't What It Used to Be Either

There used to be a comma between "sex" and "drugs"--which were followed by "rock and roll." ["Passion Pills," September]. What happened? Oh, the baby boomer generation must be aging.

Brian M. Godfrey
Manzanita, Oreg.
Off-Road Offense

While off-roading in the Utah wilderness alters habitat and crumbles burrows, it does not put mountain lions, bison, pronghorns (they are not antelope), bald eagles, and peregrine falcons "at risk" [R&D;, September].

At risk of what? In Utah, bison live only on Henry Mountain, on Antelope Island, and on Native American lands. On Henry Mountain and Antelope Island, they are hunted annually to maintain numbers. Pronghorn are not only increasing in number, but are expanding their range throughout Utah. Bald eagles are common winter residents in Utah; their numbers are increasing, and they may be removed from the threatened and endangered species list later this year. The number of peregrine falcons in Utah has increased about 4 to 5 percent a year over the past decade. Off-road vehicles seldom get close enough to cliffs to disturb them, and any disturbance is temporary. The species was removed from the threatened and endangered species list in 1999. More mountain lions are taken annually by hunters in Utah than in any surrounding state. Their main prey, the mule deer, has not been jeopardized by off-road vehicles as much as by heavy winters and a continued reduction in winter feeding range.
Clayton M. White and Hal L. Black
Professors of Zoology

Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah

I agree that some off-roaders tear up the wilderness, but most feel that off-highway travel is a way of enjoying nature, not destroying it. The program "Tread Lightly!" stresses low-impact recreation and is adhered to by many in the four-wheel community. Many off-highway clubs spend countless days and dollars helping to clean up the damage done by others. Off-highway enthusiasts are constantly fighting battles to keep open public lands that are closed due to damage done by disrespectful individuals.

Paul Fritz
Hickory, N.C.
Caught Red-Handed

I found "colorizing the cosmos" [Sky Lights, September] informative. I also noticed that there were several X rays printed in the issue, almost all of them colorized. As a radiographer and sonographer, I am amused that magazines almost always show X rays in color, as if it's more high-tech if something is in color (a comment I hear frequently when performing ultrasounds). But, as mentioned in the article, it's also more eye-catching, even if it doesn't represent real life.

Traci B. Fox
Andalusia, PA.
Thunder God Vine

I was initially excited about the thunder god vine [R&D;, September] until I called my herbal teacher, Andrew Gamble, who cowrote and translated Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, which is used by many schools in the United States. He told me that this herb has all the negative side effects of some Western medicinals, including intestinal bleeding and liver damage. The danger is that many people with painfully little knowledge about Chinese herbs will either self-prescribe or market herbal products to people who equate "natural" or "herbal" with "safe."

Chinese formulas are usually tailored to a client's needs. Even simple over-the-counter Chinese formulas in pill form should be ingested only if the consumer or practitioner has some understanding of Chinese medicine. Herbs like ma huang (ephedra) have been used inappropriately by supplement manufacturers who have more regard for their bank accounts than their clients' health. Articles in popular magazines and news blips on TV can create both false hope and mistrust of herbal medicine. Consumers of health care and health products must inform themselves of the benefits and risks of procedures and medications--and this applies to both Eastern and Western medicine.

Greg Mukai
Delhi, N.Y.

We received many inquiries--and several warnings--about thunder god vine. This herb can have a strong toxic effect, has not been tested in humans, and is not available in the United States.
Know Your Marsupials

David Oren may be a top-notch scientist ["Beasts in the Mist," September], but he doesn't seem to be well acquainted with his cryptomammalogy. Oren ponders whether the presumed giant ground sloth, mapinguari, might not be a friend to the peccaries with which it associates but instead be "a horrible marsupial" that eats white-lipped peccaries.

If there is indeed a ground sloth remaining in Amazonia, it is surely not a marsupial but a full-blooded placental mammal of the order Endentata.

John C. McLoughlin
Taos, N. Mex.
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