Should the FDA Regulate Sex Toys?
It’s the most wonderful time of year—the time when we jam a bunch of random crap in an oversized sock in hopes that the person we love will sleep with us. Family members aside, nothing quite says I care like sex toys, right? Whether it’s a vibrator for your eternally single roommate or a cock ring for the dude you pork on the reg, sex toys stuff stockings (and other things) in all the right ways.
Except when they’re toxic. Nobody wants anaphylactic shock for Christmas, but the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates an average of 2,100 sex toy-related emergency room visits a year. Getting off just became pretty high stakes.
On the whole, sex toys hang out in regulatory limbo. The FDA only pays attention to them if they fall under the category of medical devices, which means the tiny handful of vibrators that are presented as therapeutic massagers. It’s the manufacturer’s decision to classify their toys as therapeutic or not, so the majority of vibrators—not to mention all other sex toys—elude the FDA’s gaze.
I Got My Personal Genome Mapped and It Was Bullshit
Last Friday, the FDA forced personal genomics company 23andMe to stop marketing its tests to the public in their current form. Before the order came in, customers would send a spit sample to the firm, who would sequence the DNA and look for genes indicating a risk of up to 254 diseases and conditions, providing a breakdown of any issues.
The FDA cited a lack of supporting evidence for some of the claims made and expressed particularly serious concern over their assessment of the BRCA gene, which is linked to breast cancer, suggesting 23andMe’s tests might result in false positives that could lead to women undergoing traumatic and unnecessary surgery. The FDA’s actions have led to an explosion of opinion across the science blogosphere, but in all of that commentary a big question remains unanswered: What exactly is the point of personal genomics?
My first experience with the industry came about three years ago, when I was offered the chance to have a test done with Navigenics, a firm since taken over by a biotech firm called Life Technologies. Being a curious sort of guy, I jumped at the chance. A sample tube arrived via Fedex a few days later, which I duly spat into and sent back for analysis.
The results came back in the form of a sort of “wall of death”—a breakdown of all the things that might harm or kill me over the coming decades, detailing how likely I am to have each condition. Drilling into the figures, I can see that I have a higher risk of prostate cancer than 95 percent of the population and a 1 in 5 chance of developing Alzheimer’s—twice the average risk. So I’ll probably get cancer, but on the plus side I’ll be too forgetful to care about it.
More and More Veterans Are Smoking Weed to Cure Their PTSD
In America, the relationship between doctors and the hegemonic pharmaceutical industry is fraught with painful, mind-numbing contradiction. There’s no better example of this than in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among US veterans and others around the country. Drugs like Risperdal, an antipsychotic, are said to be no more effective in the treatment of PTSD than a placebo. These drugs are widely distributed to treat the symptoms of PTSD, despite allegations that they’re ineffectual in treatment of the condition.
PTSD is a disorder, characterized by extreme emotional or mental anxiety, often the result of a physical or psychological injury. When confronted with a potentially deadly situation, it’s natural for humans to feel afraid—we’ve developed pretty sophisticated fight-or-flight responses to deal with real or perceived danger. PTSD arises when that response is damaged, and the patient feels stressed or frightened even when he or she is no longer in danger. The disease disproportionately affects soldiers deployed in war zones. Very often they are in situations so dangerous that they develop the condition, and return home as shell-shocked emotional cripples. Veteran’s Affairs claims that today, almost 300,000 veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD, although the number is likely much higher due to lack of diagnosis.
Doctors in British Columbia Can Now Prescribe Heroin
British Columbia, Canada, has had a heroin problem for years. Statistics are hard to come by, but in 2008, a former user described use of the drug in the province as an “epidemic,” and a 2010 BBC story called Vancouver, BC’s largest city, the “Drug Central of North America.” But a new strategy in the fight against addiction and the host of societal problems that come with it is emerging: let doctors prescribe addicts heroin so they get the drug they need without resorting to crime. Studies have shown this approach can help many longtime users, but the Canadian gonvernment wants it shut down.
Prescription heroin is used in some European countries, including Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, but it’s been a long time coming to North America. The first Canadian study that tested the effectiveness of giving addicts heroin under the supervision of doctors was the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI), which started in 2005. It eventually recruited 251 addicts in Vancouver and Montreal who had unsuccessfully attempted to kick smack numerous times. A control group was given methadone, which is commonly prescribed to heroin addicts so they can wean themselves off hard drugs.
The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, showed that injectable heroin—known in medical-speak as diacetylmorphine—was a far more effective and efficient treatment than methadone in getting users out of the vicious and costly cycle of crime, infection, overdoses, and hospital visits that are a way of life for those in the grips of long-term, hardcore addiction. Compared to those trying to kick heroin using methadone, participants used street drugs less often, committed fewer crimes, and were employed more often, more connected to their families, and straight-up happier. A “cost of illness” analysis from 2000 found that severely addicted individuals can cost society over $43,000 per year, so getting addicts off the streets and into roles as members of productive society is good for all of Canada.
The Confusing, Controversial World of Lyme Disease
Meghan Hilliard didn’t even think about Lyme disease until she was diagnosed with it. Her doctors didn’t mention it either. All the athletic 26-year-old knew was that she felt physically sick and mentally drained. In early 2012, her knee started swelling; by April it was so big it was unrecognizable. She couldn’t use stairs. Busses had to lower their front steps for her to struggle onboard. Any joint movement sent her into what she called a “panic.” Whatever she had affecting her brain, too—she could no longer do basic math, had constant headaches, and couldn’t hold onto objects properly.
Meghan went to her urgent care doctor four times in addition to seeing an orthopedic doctor and a rheumatologist. Despite all of them telling her that her swollen knee was indicative of some sort of infection, nobody knew exactly what was wrong. She found all the doctors to be cold and dismissive. One thought she was looking to get prescription drugs. All of this was made worse by the fact that Meghan doesn’t have health insurance. Five months after her first doctor’s visit, she was diagnosed with Lyme disease and given antibiotics—the rheumatologist discovered it while testing her for lupus.
Lyme is an infectious disease that spreads to humans through tick bites. An early symptom is a bulls-eye-shaped temporary rash that appears around the area of the bite. Not everybody who gets Lyme notices the rash, and some of the other signs of the disease resemble the flu: fatigue, joint pain, chills, and mental confusion.
Drinking Camel Urine in Yemen
People have been consuming camel piss on the Arabian Peninsula for a long, long time. It’s been used by the Bedouin people as a shampoo and medicine for centuries, and it’s part of Muslim tradition as well; the Prophet Mohammed is said to have once told some of his sick followers to drink camel milk and pee “till their bodies became healthy.”
Since the seventh century, Yemenis have been following his advice. Statistics about camel urine use are rare, but if you spend any time in Yemen you’ll find some people, mostly in the countryside, who drink urine as a cure for whatever ails them. Some salons use it as a remedy for hair loss, and it’s even occasionally prescribed by some doctors.
The Government Is Retiring Hundreds of Chimps from Biochemical Research
I hate to paint with a broad brush here, but primates in America have horrible lives. Sure, there are your One Percenters like Koko and Bubbles the Chimp, but by and large, the US is essentially one big Bergen-Belsen for our oldest living ancestors. Some are forced to do parlor tricks for street performers and others are stuck in cages for pasty-skinned families to gawk at, but perhaps the most unlucky of the lot are used as research subjects by the government.
Chimpanzees share about 96 percent of our DNA. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the government is quite partial to that particular primate when looking for test subjects. Recently, the National Institute of Health issued a statement saying that it “plans to substantially reduce the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research,” effectively retiring 310 chimpanzees from the system. “Where are all the newly freed chimpanzees going to go?” You might be asking as thoughts of Bedtime for Bonzo dance through your head. Many will be heading to Chimp Haven, a wildlife sanctuary about 20 miles southwest of Shreveport, Louisiana.
At the risk of sounding like a PETA spokesperson, let me quickly give you the CliffsNotes on how Chimp Haven came into being.
As mentioned above, the US is fond of experimenting on chimpanzees, but because they are endangered, the government had to resort to breeding them in captivity beginning in the 1980s in order to produce more live subjects for the study of diseases like hepatitis and HIV.
By the 1990s, technological advancements in the biomedical field spawned new research models that didn’t require chimps. That eventually left the US government with a lot of sick, unwanted great apes on its hands. To help chimpanzees make the transition from working in experimental medicine to retirement, a league of primatologists and other professionals established Chimp Haven in 1995.
Homeopathy Fanatics Protested in London
I’ve always envied reporters who cover big protests. The protests I end up at never seem quite in the same league, be they a group of environmentalists baking bread under a tree in Rothamsted, or, as I witnessed last week, a contingent of miffed homeopaths demonstrating outside the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). While you couldn’t question the zeal of the 20 or so polite men and women who turned up with their banners, it’s difficult to imagine the state being overturned by people who are convinced that putting water in a tube, banging it against something repeatedly, then pouring it over little sugary pills can cure diseases like malaria and typhoid.
Most reasonable people dismissed the idea that homeopathy might be able to benefit anyone years ago. It’s been around since the 18th century, so it’s not quite as old as trepanning, but it’s roughly as illogical as drilling a hole in your head to cure a headache. For some reason, the practice has been allowed to continue. Treating what are essentially placebos as legitimate medicine may be harmless if you’re buying them from Hampstead Boots because your millionaire husband snores too loudly, but it’s more dangerous if you’re a refugee in Nairobi being told that homeopathy can cure your daughter’s life-threatening illness.
But somewhere along the line, homeopaths may have shot themselves in the foot. A few years ago, critics of homeopathy examined the Code of Ethics published by the Society of Homeopaths (SoH), a professional bodywith ambitions of becoming the statutory regulator of the industry. They spotted an interesting clause in it, in which SoH members were told that they must comply with the British Code of Advertising Practice, as enforced by the ASA, and avoid claiming that their pills could cure specific diseases. As it happens, the SoH aren’t the most enthusiastic enforcers of their own code, but given the ASA’s strong record on tackling bogus remedies, sceptics fresh from battling the British Chiropractic Association sensed an opportunity to take down another foe. Mass complaints were organized, supported by the Nightingale Collaboration, a consumer group set up by the science writer Simon Singh.
The Perfect Vagina
While working as a general practitioner, I had a patient who would not stop complaining about her flaps—vaginal flaps, that is, or labia minora, to be precise. Miss Vagina Whiner first came to me saying she had lost all pleasure from sexual intercourse because she was so embarrassed by her saggy lips, which drooped about her clitoris like the slobbery chops of an overbred dog. I found it curious she had shaved prior to her appointment and wondered if this was to highlight the outlandish size of her flaps.
Unfortunately, vaginal aesthetics—much like penis size—is an area where the National Health Service of the UK generally will not intervene. Ugly people are not referred for a face-transplant, and the same applies to bad genital luck. I apologized, saying that there was nothing I could do and that it was an area for a private cosmetic surgeon. I also reassured her that enlarged labia are perfectly normal and common among women, especially after popping out a few babies.
But she was persistent in her taxpayer’s right to free medical attention and returned some weeks later demanding I see her. I again reiterated—declining to take a second look—that there was nothing I could do. The only time the NHS will refer a patient for cosmetic surgery is if the problem is causing pain—the genitals can rub uncomfortably against clothes or during sex—or if the psychological effect is severe. She paused before saying, “If you won’t help me, I’ll just have to do it myself. How do I best cut them off?” Er, you’re really best not to, I don’t care how steady your hand is, chopping bits of your vagina off with scissors in the shower is a bad idea.
Libya in Vitro
After Libya’s revolution in 2011, tens of thousands of citizens wounded in bloody guerilla battles needed good hospitals and doctors the war-torn country didn’t have. As a quick fix, the interim government established a medical program for Libya’s patients, sending them to some 44 countries with the promise that their medical bills would be covered. And because of its historic ties with Libya and its high-quality, under-utilized medical facilities, Jordan quickly became the top destination for Libya’s post-revolution wounded. Beginning soon after the death of Gaddafi in October 2011, Amman’s hospitals and hotels saw an influx of Libyans—a dozen per week were arriving at one point—and soon, a mounting tab of IOUs from Libya.
But the war-wounded weren’t the only ones getting a free ride. Amidst the dysfunction of the transitional government, many non-fighting Libyans took advantage of the system, using loopholes to receive treatment for non-war related injuries. Among some 60,000 total patients, an estimated majority of Libyans took advantage of Jordan’s expertise in dentistry, plastic surgery and in vitro fertilization. If you’re in the market for getting pregnant with a test tube, it turns out there are few better times for medical tourism than after your dictator of thirty years is removed through a violent uprising. Apart from Israel (which happens to provide free IVF to its citizens, all the time), Jordan boasts some of the best IVF care in the Middle East. In all, thousands of Libyan women were treated for IVF, some of them twice if need be, on the government’s bill.