Drug Makers Encounter Cultural Differences in Asia

BANGKOK, Thailand-Makers of pharmaceuticals for the mentally ill were excited at the possibility of selling their products to more than 2 billion people in Asia.

What they didn't expect was the prevalence of shamans and fortune tellers treating such patients.

When Eli Lilly and Co. decided to research the Asian market in 1980, many doctors told them there was no mental illness in the region. Healthcare workers and the public had no knowledge of depression or schizophrenia, even though US researchers estimate Asians suffer from depression as frequently as Americans.

An estimated 3% of both populations are afflicted.

Doctors frequently reported patients coming to their hospitals for somatic complaints like pain, lack of sexual response, hyperventilation or paralysis of limbs. Physicians blamed these symptoms on their patient's lack of expressing their feelings.

However, American pharmaceutical companies, examining the possibly of treating the continent, have now invested millions of dollars into education programs for Asian healthcare workers and funded national public health campaigns.

Eli Lilly sponsors postgraduate research and courses for Asian doctors studying psychiatry. Johnson & Johnson brought US schizophrenia advocacy groups and Asian families with schizophrenic relatives together. Johnson & Johnson hosts seminars for psychiatrists to teach them about treating the mentally ill.

Even though many of these doctors agree that Western medication could help the Asian population, they understand that educating the public about a problem they don't believe to exist, will not be easy.

Information from The Wall Street Journal.