In a recent BBC documentary: ‘The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs’ Dr Chris Van Tulleken (Dr CVT) set out to answer the above question. Here I summarise this documentary and throw in a few links and additional commentary
You can watch the documentary on BBC iplayer until Late June 2018, although TBH you may as well save yourself 50 mins and just skim read what’s below.
There has been a dramatic increase in prescriptions for children with Cow’s Milk Allergy (CMA) in recent years: A 500% increase in the 10 years to 2016 in fact!
A ‘prescription’ basically means that children with CMA get put on a specialist cow milk free ‘alternative milk’ formula, which costs twice as much as regular milk formula for children, and costs the NHS £64 million/ year.
In this section of the second episode of the series: ‘The Dr Who Gave Up Drugs, Dr CVT asks why there has been such a rapid increase in prescriptions for specialist formula to treat Cow’s Milk Allergy.
He says that as a new parent, he keeps hearing about it, which is odd because only 2% of children suffer from it, and so he’s wondering whether or not the above increase in prescriptions is due to increase in the underlying numbers of children who actually have cows milk allergy (or better detection) or whether there is something else fuelling the increasing public awareness of the condition.
The Normalisation of diagnosing and treating CMA
The documentary also visits one parent who thought her child had CMA when he developed XMA (one of the possible symptoms, but also something which 20% of babies suffer from), she visited her GP, who confirmed he didn’t have CMA. However, when she took her child to hospital for a bump, the pediatrician there noticed the XMA and prescribed specialist formula for CMA.
The child hated it, and so often went to be hungry. It too a visit to a Dr Robert Boyle (in the skeptical about CMA camp) who confirmed the child didn’t have CMA and so normal milk service was resumed.
The worrying thing about the above case is that alternative formula is being pushed on parents against their will, the normalisation of the diagnoses and treatment for a condition which in this case didn’t actually exist.
Industry lead education for NHS staff
One of the reasons Dr CVT is sceptical about the increase in awareness and prescription being linked to an actual underlying number of cases of children with CMA is that a lot of the education provided to Doctors about food allergies among children is sponsored by the companies who make alternative, specialist formulas to treat allergies.
To illustrate this point, the documentary visits a training day for NHS staff in Newcastle, aimed at educating staff about food allergies in babies – the event is sponsored by Danone, the company which makes one of the specialist CMA formulas, and what Dr CVT finds is advertising literature (various ‘glossy mags) and product samples alongside proper medical advice.
Another ‘test’ for the involvement of industry in educating about food allergies is to simply Google ‘cows milk allergy’ – which Dr CVT does and finds that most of the advice websites which help parents to self-diagnose their children are run by the companies who make specialist formula to treat the condition.
He also explores the web sites which parents and professionals use to diagnose for CMA, again run by the companies, and finds that the ‘symptoms’ which indicate Cow’s Milk Allergy are pretty much the kind of symptoms which every child has at some point, whether or not they have the allergy – things such as ‘colic’ and ‘vomiting’
Finally, he interviews Dr Adam Fox, who is a consultant for the ‘Allergy Academy’, sponsored by Danone, and he doesn’t seem able to convince Dr CVT that there isn’t a conflict of interests between the companies who profit from increased diagnoses of Cow’s Milk Allergy providing education on how to diagnose for the condition.
Application to Sociology
There are lots of applications – mainly centering around labelling theory and the power of corporations to shape agendas! Also risk society.
screen capture, BBC from documentary above.