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Pediatric placebos

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When I was a small child, I had an earache, so I asked my dad for a Band Aid. The source of my discomfort was an inner ear infection, so antibiotics would have been more on the mark—but a Band Aid seemed better than nothing. The placebo effect is powerful.

As reported in the New York Times this week, there is now a placebo pill designed for children that you can buy. The product is called Obecalp (placebo spelled backwards) and available online for $5.95 a bottle. Each cherry-flavored chewable Obecalp tablet is essentially a lump of sugar in a medicinal disguise. “Invented by a mommy,” says the website advertisement, featuring a headshot of the product’s inventor, a mother of three from Severna Park, Maryland. The implication is that, if a mom came up with the idea, then it must be okay to give fake meds to your children.

But how will mom (or dad) explain the situation when their children discover that the magical tablets they received for headaches, stomachaches and sore throats were always a hoax? The use of placebos sends an uncertain message to children. They will eventually know that their parents deceived them. Moreover, there is something unnerving about looking to pills for the answer to every ailment. There are other ways to comfort children. In some cases they simply need a dose of attention to feel better. Perceived physical ailments may also be a sign of emotional or mental distress that a sugar tablet cannot fix.

Doctors admit to prescribing placebos, according to a study published earlier this year in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Researchers at the University of Chicago surveyed 466 physicians from three Chicago-area medical schools and found that nearly half of all respondents had used placebos in their clinical practice. One of their most common reasons for doing so: “to calm patients.” Something is wrong with a medical system in which patients need pills and injections to feel tranquil and reassured that they have received adequate care. It’s hard to imagine that adding more pills to the market, even if they are fakes, will help change this culture.

Posted on behalf of Coco Ballantyne

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Image by Fillmore Photography via Flickr

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