Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The ghost of MMR returns

Oh dear. Here we go again. The nightmare of the MMR scandal has returned and one suspects the only losers are going to be the poor members of the public who are now confused and concerned about giving their children Tamiflu (children remember are those most likely to get swine flu).

It all started with a piece of research in the British Medical Journal. I've linked to the research article but in brief: "The analysis was based on a systematic review of seven clinical studies looking at use of Tamiflu and Relenza in seasonal flu outbreaks in 2,629 children aged 1 to 12 years... The authors conclude that it is difficult to know the extent to which their findings can be generalised to children in the current swine flu pandemic but, based on current evidence, the effects of antivirals on reducing the course of illness or preventing complications might be limited."

Fairly reasonable and the first news headlines simply stated "Benefits of swine flu drug questioned", "Flu drugs unhelpful in children" or "Drug use discouraged". But it wasn't too long before they darkened into headlines like "Don't give children swine flu drugs - says doctors", "Swine flu drug Tamiflu 'does children more harm than good'" and "Swine flu cure a danger to kids, says docs".

I think you will be hard-pressed to find any parent rushing to give their children Tamiflu at the moment. So what is the real story? Unfortunately science appears not to be an exact science. So journalists will start playing off one against the other. Oh for the days when a man in a white coat would come on the evening news and tell you exactly what was what. There's good discussion on The Guardian story and of course Bad Science will no doubt be discussing this issue.

Once again it seems that journalists aren't prepared to give readers enough precise information for them to make up their own mind - perhaps they don't think readers will understand it, or perhaps journalists can't convert science-speak into plain English. Shameful really - that's supposed to be a journalist's job. One wonders just how long it will be before a child dies unnecessarily because the parents wouldn't give them Tamiflu.

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