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10 Craziest Medical Scandals Ever
We trust the medical fraternity with our lives. Literally. We don’t have a choice, do we? They are the ones who know the names of the fancy drugs that make the pain go away, so there is trust.
Unfortunately, the industry is run and managed by humans, and as we know, humans make mistakes. Sometimes, in the worst-case scenario, those humans don’t even have the best interest of the public at heart. Regardless of whether the slip-up is intentional or because of negligence, a scandal is a scandal.
Here follows a list of 10 of the craziest medical scandals ever.
The drug was first developed in Germany in 1954 and introduced to the market as a sedative and a treatment for morning sickness in pregnant women, cold flu, and nausea. But it was with pregnancies where it wreaked most of its havoc. When tested on animals, researchers found that it was virtually impossible to administer a lethal dose of the drug to animals and, therefore, deemed it safe for human use.
The first affected baby was born in Germany on Christmas Day in 1956, and the disabilities created were shocking. Disabilities of the drug included shortening or absence of limbs, malformed hands and ears, underdeveloped eyes, sensory impairment, and brain damage—the list goes on and on.
For five years, babies were affected by the drug before the connection between pregnant women taking the drug and the impact on their unborn children was made. An estimated 100,000 babies were affected by the drug.
9 Atherectomy for Peripheral Artery Disease
When the government changed the way doctors are compensated for atherectomies, the game changed, offering incentives to private practitioners for outpatient atherectomies as a means to relieve the pressures on the hospital system.
A low bar had been set for the treatment of arterial blockages, and the patients rolled in. From 2017 to 2021, $1.4 billion in Medicare atherectomy payments—about half of all payments made for the procedure—had gone to some 200 providers who did the procedure in volume.
What followed was a series of amputations caused by the risky artery surgery, which could have been avoided by similarly effective, cheaper treatments. Researchers and doctors uncovered excessive and inappropriate use of the procedure, and the lawsuits followed.
8 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
When government agencies experiment, they go all in. When the U.S. Public Health Service was trying to get a grip on syphilis, they were, in their madman opinion, in a prime position to subject their patients to a little experiment to test the disease’s full progression.
The year was 1932, and the location was Tuskegee, Alabama. When almost 600 African American men were recruited under the guise that they would be provided free medical care, they discovered 399 cases of latent syphilis. They told these poor souls that they had “bad blood” and that the other 201 candidates would form the control group.
In order to understand the disease, the men inflicted with syphilis were provided no effective care. One by one, they succumbed to the effects of the illness: going blind, tumbling into insanity, developing various ailments, and ultimately dying. In the end, 128 men died, 40 wives were infected, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis as a result.
7 Soothing Syrup
When a patent medicine hit the markets, it promised to soothe small children and aid in cleaning their teeth, freshen their breath, and relieve constipation. Morphine will do that. In the 19th century, Mrs. Winslow was introduced to the market, but unbeknownst to its target market—mothers—each bottle of syrup contained near-fatal amounts of morphine and alcohol. It was, therefore, not surprising that the product did exactly as promised and worked like a charm.
Morphine, as an addictive pain reliever and even in small doses, can cause the death of infants. Some infants who consumed Mrs Winslow went to sleep and simply never woke up, which, as one could expect, caused quite a public uproar. The outcry over poisoning and contaminated foods ultimately led to Congress passing the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Still, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the product was formally taken off the shelves.
6 Organ Racket
We have all heard the urban legend—you have a night out with friends, you black out, and wake up the next morning in a bath filled with ice and a note that your kidneys have been removed. It is the stuff of horrors.
In 2008, it came to light that a suspected 400 or 500 kidney transplants were done over almost nine years after the victims were lured with offerings of job opportunities, only to be prepositioned for their organs. The victims were primarily poor laborers from the villages near Delhi. Those who resisted were drugged and their kidneys taken against their will.
After the arrest of five culprits, two from the U.S. and three Greek, at a luxury guesthouse operated by a doctor running a very particular racket in the booming city of Gurgaon, India, the house of cards had begun to collapse.
5 Asthma Cigarettes
Just like we know the sun can cause sunburn and a bee can sting, we also know that cigarettes cause lung disease and cancer. Strange then to imagine a world where this was not common knowledge. It was early in the 20th century, and the world was still very ignorant about the effects bad habits might have on our bodies. Smoking is a perfect example.
When smoking took off, it wasn’t just cool; it was also prescribed as a treatment for certain respiratory illnesses, such as asthma. Page’s Inhalers were nothing more than medically prescribed cigarettes meant for the temporary relief of paroxysms of asthma, hay fever, and simple nasal irritation.
4 Defective Silicone
Just like you can’t take the crankshaft of an old Nissan Skyline, melt it down in the workshop, mold it into a bracket of sorts, and use it in hip replacement surgery, you can’t use whatever you find lying around to make silicone breast implants. In a nutshell, that was exactly what the French company Poly Implants Prothése did when they sold industrial-grade silicone to be used in breast enhancement surgery.
The implants were pulled from the market in 2010 after it came to light that the silicone was of low grade, causing a risk for rupture. It was also found that the non-medical grade silicone was contaminated with higher taxes of several cyclic siloxanes, which has led to investigations into possible toxicological consequences.
An estimated 30,000 women in France were fitted with the device. An inquiry after the withdrawal found the former owner, Jean-Claude Mas, guilty of aggravated fraud. He was sentenced to four years in prison and had to pay a €75,000 fine.
3 Cancer Injections
When Chester Southam proposed a continuation of a cancer study he had been doing for well over a decade, it seemed like a good idea at first. Southam proceeded to tell patients they were getting human cells in growing tubes with the concept of informed consent still far over the horizon.
Only after three of his colleagues refused to partake in the study and resigned from their positions did the scandal come to light. The accusation was that Southam was injecting liver cancer cells into patients at a hospital facility known for treating the elderly and those in need of physical care simply to further his cancer study.
In the end, 22 patients were injected with the cancer cells. Southam was never prosecuted but was placed under probation for one year. Fun Fact: Southam ended up as president of the American Association for Cancer Research just a few years after that.
2 HIV Blood
When hemophiliacs are injured, even with a relatively minor cut, it could be fatal as loss of blood, in many cases, could turn into a never-ending pour. For that reason, copious amounts of blood might be needed. When a tape leaked of Akihito Matsumura and his colleagues discussing the possibility that they were using non-heat-treated blood products in their patients, the scandal was exposed.
The government, in conjunction with the Red Cross, failed to halt the use of the products, which ultimately led to more than 1,800 hemophiliacs contracting HIV as a result of receiving HIV-contaminated blood during the 1980s, 400 of whom have since died from AIDS.
It wasn’t that the technology of treating the blood did not exist. But there was money to be lost should they have to discard the inventory of the untreated products. Years later, three top executives pleaded guilty and received varying prison sentences of two years, 18 months, and 16 months respectively.
1 Monster Stuttering Study
The theory was simple—calling attention to a child’s normal hesitations could cause stuttering. In an attempt to induce stuttering, researchers at the University of Iowa threw a bunch of normally fluent orphans (of course, they were orphans) into a test environment.
For six months, the orphans were shouted at, belittled, and threatened to test this theory in the hopes that they might stutter in panic or disillusionment. The study ended, and the conclusions were drawn—asking a child to be more fluent could, in fact, lead to stuttering.
What also became clear was that the children suffered from serious long-term psychological harm and were therefore awarded a settlement sum in order to avoid costly litigation, even though neither the University nor the government admitted to any wrongdoing.