Monday, 28 September 2009

Danger ahead Will Robinson

There are dangerous times ahead - for both journalists and scientists. The vaccine will soon be unveiled in the UK with much huffing and puffing about whether it's safe or not. And that means keeping a clear and responsible head on those journalistic shoulders. It also means scientists need to sharpen up their PR skills (not usually top of their skill list). We're going to have a series of articles coming up like this one in The Irish Times. The headline is "Risk from swine flu vaccine 'greater than catching virus'." And the first paragraph says: "The risks associated with catching the current strain of the H1N1 virus are less than those connected with being given a new vaccine which has had limited clinical trials, according to an international commentator on swine flu". What follows is a report on a talk given Dr Robert Verker of the Alliance for Natural Health to the Rude Health Show in Dublin. Rude Health is the trade show organsied by the Irish Association of Health Stores. It's certainly a valid article but I'm not sure if it's responsible. I'd like some more facts before scaring readers off swine flu vaccine. For instance, my first question is "How does he know the risks associated with catching the virus are less than those connected with the vaccine? And is that to everyone? Is it the same for full-of-health me as it is for my pregnant wife or my asthmatic six-month-old niece? And while I wouldn't say we should glibly accept all the government tells us, I'd like to have seen The Irish Times go to the health authorities for their view on Dr Verkerk's claim. The European Medicines Agency (which licenses such vaccines) has this to say: "The EMEA’s decision to approve the two vaccines came after detailed study of the vaccines’ quality and safety, including information on trials in more than 6,000 people. Further trials in adults and children are continuing and more results will become available from October/November 2009.As with all medicines, rare bad reactions may only come to light once the vaccines are used in large numbers of people." Journalists can't decide who is right in an argument like this but they can and should present the facts for readers to make up their own mind.

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