An investigation has left Abbott Laboratories, an American-based drug company, facing accusations of pushing unproven medicines in India.
The investigation, conducted by the British Medical Journal (BMJ), suggested that Abbott’s Indian arm has been pushing prescriptions of “Surbex star”, a proposed medication for the treatment of neuropathy. However, there is little to no evidence that the drug has undergone clinical testing.
Surbex star is a simple combination of B-vitamins, which, under Indian law, could technically be considered a food supplement, as often the lines between medication and health/food supplements may be blurred. This may be how the company has avoided legislation regarding medical testing of the product. The issue arises though that it is not being prescribed as a supplement but a medication.
In terms of the disease itself, neuropathy may indeed be caused by low levels of B-vitamins. However this is one of a host of causative factors, and to market a supplement as an effective treatment is misleading at best. One of the most common causes of neuropathy is diabetes. Diabetes is far more common in the Indian population due, in part, to genetic predispositions to the disease and this may explain the high instance of the associated neuropathy.
Should it be the case that the neuropathy was not linked to vitamin B deficiencies, the Surbex star medication would have no effect and symptoms would persist. Interviews conducted by the BMJ with Christopher Gibbons, head of the neuropathy clinic at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston confirmed this. It was stated however that one component of the medication, antioxidant α-lipoic acid, did relieve symptoms when administered intravenously, thought the same benefits were not conferred through oral administration, as is the case with Surbex star.
Adding further suspicion to the practice of prescribing the untested medication is the method by which it has been reported to be prescribed. Abbott India helped organise a “free” medical camp, in which patients were screened, according to the investigation, often by the company’s salesperson. Many were diagnosed with neuropathy and prescribed and charged for Surbex star.
This manner of marketing campaign, as well as doctors being sponsored to prescribe medications by the suppliers, is turning false diagnosis into a lucrative business. The practise exploits a lack of knowledge and a fear of ill health within the population and has thus far avoided legal action in opposition. This manner of exploitation needs to be removed if India is aiming to achieve a higher standard of healthcare .