Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Aspirin – Wonder drug or a danger lurking on supermarket shelves?

A study recently published in the Lancet  claims that a small regular dose of aspirin can reduce the incidence of cancers from 30% (lung) to 60% (oesophagus). How exciting that a dirt cheap drug, first recommended by Hippocrates in 400BC (he used the bark of a willow tree – which contains salicylic acid, related to the active ingredient to aspirin) could be the ‘magic bullet’ to prevent killer diseases. But I do hope that the ‘general public’ will not rush to the supermarket to buy this wonder drug before seeking medical advice.

It is already well documented that aspirin has beneficial ‘blood thinning’ properties in the prevention of heart disease and stroke and the good news is – this is a cheap and easily available drug. But the bad news is – this is a cheap and easily available drug.

For over 40 years my grandmother took an aspirin tablet, in the larger pain-killing dose of 300mg, every night as she believed it helped her to sleep. She lived in relatively good health to the impressive age of 99 and I have no doubt that the anti-platelet effect of this regular medication helped to stave off stroke and potential heart attack.

A young friend of mine also took aspirin regularly, on an empty stomach first thing in the morning for a hangover and another friend took the drug every day at the low dose of 75mg as a preventative measure to counteract the heart disease that killed her parents and a sibling.

All three of these people bought the tablets over the counter and all three experienced serious side effects. My grandmother suffered a dramatic, life threatening gastric bleed and my two friends are currently being treated for stomach ulcers.

This little tablet, like so many medicines, has powerful effects and these are not all good. In America, where 15 billion aspirin are sold annually, it is estimated that 20,000 people a year die from haemorrhage or gastro-intestinal bleeding due to its use.

I believe that there is little justification to sell aspirin over the counter in the pain relieving dose of 300mg when there are safer, more effective painkillers available.
If this drug was new to the market today, I very much doubt that it would be awarded a licence for pain relief as the benefits versus potential side effects ratio would not be sufficiently high. However, it is proven as a valuable aid to the prevention of some cardiac disease and stoke

If, as this research is confirmed, aspirin truly does have a significant value in preventing deaths from cancer then a concerted effort must be made to educate the public of the appropriate dosage and use of this drug.

This may be a good case for the ‘Nanny State’ method of protecting the health of individuals and we should proceed with caution.

Just because a medicine has been unregulated for years, it could still warrant some kind of regulation now. This could be a fantastic good news story as an old favourite emerges as a potential life saver. But let’s not forget that ‘the devil you know’ can still cause harm if used in the wrong way.


Post a Comment