Do the right thing

Monday, April 21, 2008

We just take certain things for granted. We assume that our food and water are safe and we assume that same safety for medications we get from the pharmacy, either by prescription or over the counter. But what happens when fact gets in the way of our beliefs.

Heparin is a blood thinner used routinely in hospitals and clinics around the world. Who would have thought that it was assembled like a television, with a variety of parts being outsourced from different factories around the world? Baxter International, a pharmaceutical company, gets some of the raw material for heparin from a Wisconsin based company that owns a factory in China to process pig intestines, the source of raw heparin. According to the FDA, the government watchdog, this factory did not have adequate manufacturing standards and was the source of contamination that has caused allergic reactions and deaths. The Chinese government disagrees and wants to inspect the Baxter factories in New Jersey to see if the fault lies there.

We presume that pharmaceutical facilities are sterile, clean places. Ads show scientists dressed in white working in immaculate laboratories bringing us the wonders of medical science. It is a shock to consider that perhaps some of the ingredients come from less friendly environments.

These same revelations have been made in the food industry. Whether the food chain is at risk because of machine lubricants that contaminate food in processing plants or because a restaurant doesn’t adequately refrigerate its chicken, the individual is at the mercy of others to do the right thing. And sometimes the government gets it right, like when it destroyed millions of pounds of ground beef because of the risk of mad cow disease.

But back to heparin. It is one of the commonly used drugs to help treat heart attacks and blood clots. It is used to keep intravenous lines from clotting and is routinely given to dialysis patients.

When the doctor orders the drug, he or she isn’t interested in where it was made and whether it was safe. The patient doesn’t care that there is an international dispute as to who might be responsible for a manufacturing error. They both just want the drug to be there when it is needed and they both presume that when the drug is sitting on the pharmacy shelf ready to be used, that it has a safety seal of approval.

The public faith presumes that people from the factory floor to the board room care about what they make. Whether it is an automobile airbag, the food we eat or the medication we take, we actually expect that the people, our next door neighbors and friends, who make stuff to actually care about making it right.

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