Ulcers: Why doctors won’t cure a curable disease
Ten years ago, I was talking with a young doctor about peptic ulcer disease. As it turned out, he had never heard that it is caused by a bacterium (which can be easily killed by antibiotics), even though, at that time, it had been decisively proven to be caused by the germ H. pylori. I was dumbfounded.
But that’s not the worst of it.
Ten years later, most doctors still are not using antibiotics to treat this vexatious and dangerous condition (you can bleed to death from an ulcer). Instead, we’re being barraged by the pharmaceutical companies with acid-suppressing drugs (which, by the way, have taken over the No. 1 spot in drug sales), and researchers are idiotically pouring money into pointless studies on the relationship of things like stress and exercise to ulcers.
News flash: The cause and cure for peptic ulcers are known-and have been for over 15 years
Thanks to the fearless research of a Dr. Barry Marshall.
Several years ago, I read an excellent article in Fortune magazine that beautifully illustrated Marshall’s groundbreaking discovery and the tragedy of the events that followed. The article began as follows:
“Dr. Barry Marshall, young and self-confident, raised a beaker of bacteria-laden liquid to his lips and drank it down. The medical resident was determined to prove something he had not been able to prove with dogs: that a bacterium, called Helicobacter pylori, causes peptic ulcer. ‘It tasted like swamp water,’ he remarked. A week later, he became sick to his stomach. Within a week, he was pale, haggard, and foul of breath. A colleague performed an endoscopy, and there, to Marshall’s excitement, were the redness and inflammation indicating that the beginning of ulceration was present, the telltale sign of incipient peptic ulcer. A biopsy confirmed the presence of H. pylori, thus confirming what Marshall had been trying to tell his colleagues, that peptic ulcer is an infectious process.”
The dawning of the age of acid suppression
Marshall performed his experimental research 16 years ago- but most doctors still don’t employ the effective treatment he developed. The sad fact is that greed, jealousy, and indifference have led to the abandonment of the interest of the patient for the sake of higher income.
After his courageous experiment on himself, Marshall hit the convention circuit but made no converts. The idea was simply preposterous. Everyone “knew” that peptic ulcer was a problem of hyperacidity-an excess of acid in the stomach. The fact that the new wonder drugs cleared it up promptly by acid inhibition clearly confirmed that acid was the cause.
This was the advent of the Tagamet/Zantac era. These drugs “worked”; there was no doubt about that. That is, they “worked” temporarily. But their effectiveness equals a lifetime of treatment; otherwise, the ulcer will return. This makes the patient dependent on the doctor-and the pharmaceutical company-for life. The patient’s pain is alleviated, though, so he is happy, the doctor is happy, and the pharmaceutical company is very happy.
While the above sounds cynical it’s the brutal truth. After all, a two-week prescription for an inexpensive antibiotic rather than a lifetime of therapy with expensive drugs doesn’t make for a happy drug company or doctor.
As Fortune reported, “Marshall and his H. pylori were competing for attention with two of the greatest pharmaceutical accomplishments of all time: the antacid ulcer medicines Tagamet and Zantac.”
Unfortunately, many people feel so much better taking Zantac or Tagamet that they stop the medicine. This triggers a resurgence of ulcer pain, which usually means another visit to the doctor, who puts that expensive camera tube ($1,000 a pop) down the patient’s throat to confirm the recurrence of the disease. Since the gastroenterologists make 25 percent of their income from ulcers and related diseases, we’re talking serious medical economics here. Their damage control has been effective. The scam is near perfect: Stop the medicine, and the ulcer comes back.
The older you are, the greater your risk
The odds of getting H. pylori rise about one percentage point a year with age. So 50 percent of 50-year-old Americans have the infection, 60 percent of 60-year-olds, etc. But just because you have H. pylori doesn’t mean you will necessarily develop an ulcer-just 20 percent will develop the disease. On the other hand, virtually everyone with an ulcer does have H. pylori (except for those caused by drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen).
While you may not get an ulcer, prolonged infection with H. pylori can lead to stomach cancer. It spreads in crowded or unsanitary conditions, so in parts of Africa, Latin America, and even Italy and Japan, H. pylori infection rates are extremely high. There, people usually catch it as infants or toddlers, which is especially dangerous, because the bacteria eventually destroy all the acid-secreting glands in the stomach, greatly increasing the risk of stomach cancer.
In Peru, where nearly everyone has H. pylori, stomach cancer is the leading cause of death among men and second among women. The U.S. has about 25,000 cases of stomach cancer, and 14,000 deaths, per year. These deaths are preventable with proper therapy.
A simple cure vs. a lifetime of treatment
Marshall finally arrived at a formula that eradicated 85 percent of H. pylori cases. His treatment cocktail consisted of Pepto-Bismol, tetracycline (a cheap antibiotic), and metronidazole (another relatively cheap antibiotic). Keep in mind this is an 85 percent cure rate, as opposed to a zero percent cure rate for Zantac and Tagamet.
Unfortunately, however, most doctors still ignore the curative treatment, preferring to treat the symptoms rather than the disease itself.
Consider this depressing-but amusing-sequence of events in Dr. Marshall’s rise to scientific recognition: In 1984, an article about his ulcer research was published in the Lancet-one of the most reliable and prestigious medical journals in the world-where it was ignored by the American medical establishment.
Then, later that year, one of my favorite American medical publications for innovative ideas, the National Enquirer, reported on it. This report was shortly followed by a favorable article in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It wasn’t until then, once their collective noses had been rubbed raw with gastric acid, that the experts hunkered down to investigate this young whippersnapper’s work. Much to their embarrassment, he had discovered the etiology of one of medicine’s great mysteries and a method of successful treatment-which finally resulted in the ultimate vindication: In 1995, Marshall won the prestigious Lasker Award for scientific accomplishment in medicine.
Action to take:
When you go to your doctor and complain of pain and burning in your solar plexus, and he recommends Zantac or Tagamet for an ulcer, ask him, “Doctor, what do you think about the ‘theory’ that this condition is caused by an infection?” If he gives you the old doctor-shrug, decline his prescriptions, pay him for his time, and get a third opinion. You have had two opinions, his expensive one and my cheap one.
As a final note, I have a suggestion for Dr. Marshall. Being the free thinker he is, maybe he will listen to me-none of the universities have. Photoluminescence, the method of exposing a small portion of a patient’s blood to ultraviolet light and then injecting it back into a vein, would probably eliminate the need for any other medication. The treatment takes 20 minutes, and two treatments, a few days apart, and would probably cure the patient. Ultraviolet irradiation of the blood is especially effective against intestinal organisms.
Brian O’Reilly, “Why Doctors Aren’t Curing Ulcers,” Fortune, 6/9/97