Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Aspirin and the 1918 flu

The New York Times has an interesting article on a new paper that claims that some of the 50 million deaths worldwide attributed to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic may have actually been caused by aspirin overdoses, a common (but sometimes deadly) treatment at the time. But this passage stood out to me:

Aspirin packages were produced containing no warnings about toxicity and few instructions about use. In the fall of 1918, facing a widespread deadly disease with no known cure, the surgeon general and the United States Navy recommended aspirin as a symptomatic treatment, and the military bought large quantities of the drug.

I'll bet a lot of the New York Times' readers read that paragraph and come away thinking, "Thank god we have a government agency to make sure there are warnings on medicines." But personally, it was the second sentence that struck me – maybe if the government hadn't been in the business of giving out health advice, the use of high doses of aspirin in 1918 wouldn't have been so widespread.

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