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Put the Brakes on Pediatric Prescriptions

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Sales of prescription drugs for children have skyrocketed in the past decade. Children are given unnecessary antibiotics for ear infections, strong sedatives for insomnia, and potent acid blockers for upset tummies. Most disturbing, however, is the growing number of prescriptions for mind-altering drugs.

Sales of prescription drugs for children have skyrocketed in the past decade. Children are given unnecessary antibiotics for ear infections, strong sedatives for insomnia, and potent acid blockers for upset tummies. Most disturbing, however, is the growing number of prescriptions for mind-altering drugs.

In 2003, about 450,000 Canadian children and adolescents consulted a physician for depression. Seventy-five percent of them walked away with a prescription for an antidepressant such as Prozac or Zoloft. Yet there is mounting evidence that these drugs are actually harmful for children.

According to Dr. Jane Garland, in an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (February 2004), several studies conducted over the past two years have shown that selective serotonin (SSRIs) reuptake inhibitors are little better than placebo in relieving depression in children. In addition to "minor" side effects of stunted growth, nausea, fatigue, nervousness, and concentration difficulties, these prescription drugs dramatically increase the risk of suicide, agitation, and aggressive behavior.

Health Canada has advised patients under the age of 18 who are taking SSRI antidepressants to discuss safety concerns with their physicians. In my opinion, they should follow the lead of Great Britain, which recently banned the pediatric use of all SSRIs except Prozac (the only one approved for use in children in that country) on the grounds that they increase risk of suicide.

Ritalin: A Drug in Search of a Disease

Another mind-altering drug that merits much closer scrutiny is Ritalin. Every year, Canadians fill more than a million prescriptions for this and other drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These drugs are strong stimulants with a long list of side effects including loss of appetite, decrease in normal growth, intestinal upset, drowsiness, mood changes, and addiction.

New research suggests that they also cause changes in young brains that may have long-term consequences. Animal studies have shown that early exposure to Ritalin or similar drugs cause chemical changes that modify the brain's reward centers, increasing risk of depression and "learned helplessness."

Some experts argue that Ritalin is a drug in search of a disease, and ADHD isn't a disease at all but a collection of normal childhood behaviors such as fidgeting and failure to pay attention. If it is a real disease, why didn't it exist 25 years ago? And why does it primarily affect North American kids, who use 90 percent of the world's supply of Ritalin?

A Last Resort

Many doctors, teachers, and parents defend the use of these drugs by saying that nothing else works, but have they tried anything else? There are many safe, natural therapies for these common childhood conditions. For depression try exposure to sunlight. For ADHD try DMAE (Dimethylaminoethonal) or Phosphatidylserine. Fish oil and exercise will help with both conditions. This will minimize our kid's exposure to dangerous, life-altering pharmacological substances.

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