Friday, February 29, 2008

Pigs and the Blood Thinner Heparin

My mom had a knee-replacement surgery last year and one of the drugs she was given to prevent clots was called heparin. She had to be tested regularly to make sure she didn't have too high or too low of a dose. I hadn't given the medicine much thought until I read this morning's New York Times, which had a front-page article by Walt Bogdanich headlined "Blood Thinner Might Be Tied to More Deaths" (here). My mom is not taking heparin at the moment, but I was still interested. To my surprise, I learned that most heparin is derived from pig intestines. In fact, as Bogdanich notes, some of the recent problems associated with heparin perhaps stem from the unregulated Chinese family workshops that scrape the mucous membrane from pig's intestines then bake it into a crude form of heparin that is later refined. Near the end of his article, Bogdanich writes "the Chinese heparin market has been in turmoil over the last year, as pig disease has swept through the country, depleting stocks, leading some farmers to sell sick pigs into the market and forcing heparin producers to scramble for new sources of raw material." Not all heparin comes from pigs, of course; much of it comes from bovine tissue as well. There have been over 400 adverse reactions to heparin, although it's not clear how many deaths have resulted, as the people receiving this anticoagulant are often awfully sick to begin with. While the health issues are obviously paramount here, I'm sure glad my mom is not a vegetarian or vegan, although if she were, how would she know about the source of this medicine and what other options might there have been?

The photo above accompanied a Wall Street Journal article "Making Heparin is a Dirty Job," which I found here. It is an interesting and kinda disgusting account of Chinese heparin factories.

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