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Aspirin: the wonderdrug
Before you read the text, look at the tasks below it.

 

Tens of thousands of people now take an aspirin a day in the hope of preventing a stroke or a heart attack in the future. Are they right to do so?

 

 

Is aspirin all it's cracked up to be?


Yes, it's the authentic wonderdrug. It may cost less than a penny a pill and be readily available from the chemist or supermarket without prescription, but no drug in history has proved so useful to so many people in so many different conditions. Aspirin remains by far the most popular remedy for everyday aches and pains and for childhood fevers, but over the past three decades it has also been shown to have beneficial effects in a wide variety of other areas.

What is aspirin?


Aspirin's active ingredient is salicylic acid, a naturally occurring chemical made by the willow tree. Its analgesic (pain-reducing) properties were first recognised back in 400 BC by the Greek physician Hippocrates, who recommended that pregnant women should take an infusion of willow leaves to ease the pain of labour.

 


When did the modern world start using it?


The willow's therapeutic properties were rediscovered in 1758 by an English clergyman, the Reverend Edmund Stone. Walking one day through a meadow near Chipping Norton, Stone was prompted to detach and nibble at a small piece of bark from a willow tree and was struck by its extremely bitter taste. Knowing that the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree -from which quinine (used in the treatment of malarial fevers) is derived - has a similarly bitter taste, he surmised that the willow might also have therapeutic properties. He tested it out on 50 of his acquaintances and reported its beneficial results to the president of the Royal Society. However, it took another 140 years before the German chemist Felix Hoffman introduced a synthetic form of the drug. The first commercial preparation of salicylic acid was launched by the drug company Bayer in 1899.

 

Then what happened?


Bayer made a lot of money, but the full range of aspirin's therapeutic abilities did not emerge until 1971 when a British scientist, John Vane, discovered that it worked by blocking the activity of the prostaglandins - one of the most ubiquitous and powerful groups of chemicals in the body. Prostaglandins are involved in inflammation -hence the value of aspirin in reducing the pain and swelling of inflamed joints. But they also encourage the blood platelets to aggregate together to form a clot. Since aspirin counters this effect, Vane hypothesised that it might be used to keep the blood flowing round the body and so reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

 

And does it?


Indeed it does, and the scale and extent of the resulting health benefits are extraordinary. Aspirin reduces the risk of strokes by around 25% and heart attacks by almost 50%. It is thought that it probably saves thousands of lives a year. And, crucially, this therapeutic effect is achieved with just a small dose of between 75mg and 325mg a day.

 

Why is this important?


Just like every other drug, aspirin has side effects. One of those side effects is that when aspirin is taken in the usual dose of 500mg or more a day it can cause irritation of the lining of the stomach, resulting in gastritis or even a peptic ulcer. This in turn can bleed or perforate with predictably dire consequences. But the blood platelets (whose aggregation causes the blood clot) contain only limited amounts of prostaglandin so only a small dose of aspirin is required. Hence people can take a low dose of aspirin for years on end with only the smallest chance of serious untoward side effects associated with the usual dosage.

 

So should we all take an aspirin a day?


There is no doubt that those who have already had a stroke or heart attack should take an aspirin a day as this will markedly reduce the risk of a further occurrence. The more contentious question is whether every 50-year-old should take a daily dose of aspirin in order to keep the blood flowing freely round the body and reduce the chance of such misfortune at some uncertain time in the future.

 

And should they?


Professor Tom Meade of Britain's Medical Research Council has recently clarified this important issue in a study involving nearly 6,000 men. The results were published in the British Medical Journal in July this year. The study confirms that for every thousand people taking a regular daily dose, "two or three" lives were saved each year. But this benefit applies only to those whose blood pressure was consistently within the normal range. Meade found that those with a higher upper (or systolic) reading of 145mm of mercury derive no protective benefit and remain vulnerable to the small risk of side effects such as gastric inflammation.

 

And what of the future?


The pharmaceutical industry has spent hundreds of millions of pounds over the past decade trying to develop safer variants of aspirin. Not one of them, however, has been shown to be consistently superior to the original. The old remedies are clearly the best.

 

Published by the kind permission of The Week



TASK 1  - pre-reading

In groups, read the following questions and try to answer them using the knowledge you have.

What is aspirin?

When did the modern world start using it?

What does it do?

So should we all take an aspirin a day?

Does aspirin have any side effects?

 

TASK 2  - while-reading

 

Important: When reading the text you may need to consult a dictionary to find out the meaning of new vocabulary. You might use Cambridge Dictionary online.

Read the text Aspirin: the wonderdrug and match the headlines below to the right paragraphs.

 

 

And does it?

And should they?

And what of the future?

Is aspirin all it's cracked up to be?

So should we all take an aspirin a day?

Then what happened?

What is aspirin?

When did the modern world start using it?

Why is this important?

 

TASK 3  - post-reading

 

·         Look at the questions from TASK 1. Find the answers to them in the text and compare them with your own answers. Were your ideas correct?

·         Do you know any other benefits of aspirin apart from the ones mentioned in the text? Think about it. When you’re finished, present your ideas to the class.

If you’re lost, click here to find out how else we can benefit from the drug.

 

TASK 4  - vocabulary matching quiz

 

·         Click here and check how well you remember the meaning of some medical terms used in the text above.





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