Tag Archives: bad science

‘Could Spider-Man become a reality?’ asks Mail Online

For some reason the Mail Online editor has filed this article under ‘Science': ‘Could Spider-Man become a reality? Bizarre white cobweb found on nuclear waste that could have come from a ‘mutant’ spider’.

The article – remember Dacre today telling the Leveson inquiry that the Mail employs some of the finest journalists around – reports that:

In a freakish echo of the Spider-Man comic strip, workers at a U.S nuclear waste facility discovered the growth on uranium last month.

In what way is that ‘a freakish echo of the Spider-Man comic strip’? Sadly, it gets worse. First of all, the Mail explains what has been discovered:

Experts from Savannah River National Laboratory collected a small sample of the mystery material to run tests.

A report filed by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board – a federal oversight panel – concluded: ‘The growth, which resembles a spider web, has yet to be characterised, but may be biological in nature.’

The report said the initial sample of the growth was too small to characterise, and that ‘further evaluation still needs to be completed’.

Then the Mail steps back into childish fantasy:

he bizarre growth will stoke fears that nuclear fuel can cause Frankenstein-style mutations.

It echoes the plot of Spider-Man, where Peter Parker becomes a superhero after being bitten by a mutant spider at a nuclear waste laboratory.

Whilst a image caption claims:

Web of intrigue: The discovery means mutant spiders, like the one that bit Peter Parker, could become a reality.

And to think that Paul Dacre genuinely believes his newspaper group does serious, decent journalism and is prepared to argue his case under oath.

Met Office responds to Mail on Sunday article

Following on from my last blog post about David Rose from the Mail on Sunday telling us to forget about global warming I will provide the full statement from the Met Office that was given to Rose before the article was published (he just chose to ignore it):

A spokesman for the Met Office said: “The ten year projection remains groundbreaking science. The complete period for the original projection is not over yet and these projections are regularly updated to take account of the most recent data.

“The projections are probabilistic in nature, and no individual forecast should be taken in isolation. Instead, several decades of data will be needed to assess the robustness of the projections.

“However, what is absolutely clear is that we have continued to see a trend of warming, with the decade of 2000-2009 being clearly the warmest in the instrumental record going back to 1850. Depending on which temperature records you use, 2010 was the warmest year on record for NOAA NCDC and NASA GISS, and the second warmest on record in HadCRUT3.”

Furthermore, the Met Office were able to confirm that:

Despite the Met Office having spoken to David Rose ahead of the publication of the story, he has chosen to not fully include the answers we gave him to questions around decadal projections produced by the Met Office or his belief that we have seen no warming since 1997.

As well as clarifying Rose’s assertions about the possible impact of the Sun on global temperatures (Rose suggested reduced Sun activity was about to drag us into an ice age):

Furthermore despite criticism of a paper published by the Met Office he chose not to ask us to respond to his misconceptions. The study in question, supported by many others, provides an insight into the sensitivity of our climate to changes in the output of the sun.

It confirmed that although solar output is likely to reduce over the next 90 years this will not substantially delay expected increases in global temperatures caused by greenhouse gases. The study found that the expected decrease in solar activity would only most likely cause a reduction in global temperatures of 0.08 °C. This compares to an expected warming of about 2.5 °C over the same period due to greenhouse gases (according to the IPCC’s B2 scenario for greenhouse gas emissions that does not involve efforts to mitigate emissions).

Just another example of a journalist having the facts to hands, but choosing to ignore them in order to pursue an editorial agenda.

Another rhetorical science question

Via Twitter I read on the BBC website an article about a bacteria that was able to take ‘arsenic on board in its cellular machinery’. It was discovered in an Californian lake and the BBC calmly explain the meaning of the discovery:

John Elliott, a Leeds Metropolitan University researcher who is a veteran of the UK’s search for extraterrestrial life, called the find a “major discovery”.

“It starts to show life can survive outside the traditional truths and universals that we thought you have to use… this is knocking one brick out of that wall,” he said.

“The general consensus is that this really could still be an evolutionary adaptation rather than a second genesis. But it’s early days, within about the first year of this project; it’s certainly one to think on and keep looking for that second genesis, because you’ve almost immediately found an example of something that’s new.”

I then flicked through the Daily Mail and saw how they had covered the story:

Aliens!
Click to Enlarge

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you, they have included a picture of ET. And yes, aliens do not live in this lake.

The answer to the rhetorical question is always likely to be ‘NO’

The Daily Mail headline: ‘Is wi-fi radiation killing off trees? Study blames computer signals for dying leaves‘.

The claims made at the start of the article:

As if our magnificent trees didn’t have enough problems, they’re now being threatened by our emails…

Now researchers say radiation from wi-fi networks that enable our burgeoning online communications may be their latest enemy.

Trees planted close to a wireless router had bleeding bark and dying leaves, according to the study in Holland.

The revelation will raise fears that wi-fi radiation may also be having an effect on the human body and supports parents who have campaigned to stop wireless routers being installed in schools.

So, not only does the research reckon that trees are dying because of Wi-Fi emissions, but the Daily Mail goes a good few steps further and suggests that the study adds weight to the paranoid Mail readers who believe that it also damages the body. The reporter – Niall Firth – really is taking bad science reporting to new lows when you skip to the end of the article for the nugget of truth:

The Wageningen University scientists behind the research, which has not yet been published, said that further studies were needed to confirm their findings.

The Dutch health agency issued a statement, stressing that ‘these are initial results and that they have not been confirmed in a repeat survey’.

It added: ‘There are no far-reaching conclusions from its results. Based on the information now available it cannot be concluded that the wi-fi radio signals leads to damage to trees or other plants.’

Other scientists have expressed scepticism. Marvin Ziskin, a professor of radiology and medical physics at Temple University in Philadelphia, said: ‘Stuff like this has been around a long time. There’s nothing new about wi-fi emissions. Scientifically there’s no evidence to support that these signals are a cause for concern.’

But Niall Firth – although he must have read this – still went ahead with the introduction of the article and the bit about how such research was likely to encourage fearful parents to worry more about Wi-Fi in schools. He does find time to mention the worried parents one last time:

In 2007, a BBC Panorama documentary found that radiation levels from wi-fi in one school was up to three times the level of mobile phone mast radiation.

Scary stuff… Then you read the ‘however’ that follows it:

However, the readings were 600 times below government safety limits.

So parents do not need to be worried then, even though the start of this article clearly tries to ramp up the fear.

As for that headline, well, as usual if the Mail is asking a rhetorical science question the answer is 99% likely to be ‘NO’.

The Media Scaremongering that Never Was

The Daily Mail has an article today about who was to blame for the Swine Flu scare: ‘The pandemic that never was: Drug firms ‘encouraged world health body to exaggerate swine flu threat”. In it they level the blame solely at the feet of the World Health Organisation and ‘profit-hungry drug companies spreading fear’ – using a report by Labour MP Paul Flynn, who investigated the scare for the Council of Europe. According to the Daily Mail:

The report accuses the World Health Organisation of grave shortcomings in the transparency of the process that led to its warning last year.

The MP said that the world relied on the WHO, but after ‘crying wolf’, its reputation was in jeopardy.

The Daily Mail makes it clear that drug companies made billions of pounds as governments stocked up on vaccines, as Paul Flynn notes:

‘There is not much doubt that this was an exaggeration on stilts. They vastly over-stated the danger on bad science and the national governments were in a position where they had to take action.

But how did drug companies succeed in communicating ‘bad science’ and the vast over-statement of the danger of Swine Flu? Seems to me the corporate media played a substantial role, and none more so than the Daily Mail:


People have already pointed out how the Daily Mail wrote an awful lot of articles blaming the ‘state scare machine’ for creating the Swine Flu panic, so pointing out the hypocrisy here is hardly news. However, it is always interesting when the media pick up a report and cherry pick information from it. The full report in this case can be found here [PDF] and includes the following references to the role the media played in communicating the corporate scaremongering:

[in future we need to collaborate] with the media in order to avoid sensationalism and scaremongering in the public health domain [p2]

[the author was worried] by the way in which some of the sensitive issues were communicated by public authorities and subsequently picked up by the European media, reinforcing fears amongst the population which sometimes made objective analysis difficult. [p5]

In future situations posing a serious risk to public health, decision-makers should bear in mind that the precautionary principle can contribute to a general feeling of anxiety and unease in the population and can fuel the media in what becomes a cycle of fear mongering. [p9]

A review is also necessary of the media’s role in fuelling fear and how WHO and how national authorities should handle communications in the future, in particular when applying the precautionary principle. [p12]

WHO [World Health Organisation] itself continues to assert that it has consistently evaluated the impact of the current influenza pandemic as moderate, reminding the medical community, public and media that the overwhelming majority of patients experience mild influenza-like illness and recover fully within a week, even without any form of medical treatment. [p12]

the main concerns regarding the current H1N1 influenza include the proportionality of the response given to the public health threat of H1N1, the transparency of relevant decision-making processes, including the possibility of undue influence by the pharmaceutical industry, and the way in which the pandemic, and the use of the precautionary principle, was communicated to member states’ governments and to the European public at large, also by the media. [p17]

Finally, the rapporteur is very concerned about the way in which the information on the pandemic was communicated by WHO and national authorities to the public, the role of the media in this, and the fears that this generated amongst the public. The rapporteur recommends that a thorough review should be undertaken to ensure that coherent and sensitive communication strategies are prepared and followed in the future by all public health authorities whenever the next major situation arises which poses a serious threat to public health. [p17]

The Daily Mail, of course, fails to make any reference to any of these points, because the media is never self-critical. It always finds someone else to blame – it was the WHO, the drug corporations or governments that created the fear, not the media. If the media admits any culpability at all it tends to use the excuse that they were only ‘passing the information on’, which is just not an excuse.

The Daily Mail has every interest in scaremongering and creating panic because it sells a lot of papers by doing so – and, as we constantly see, if the truth of the matter is less dramatic, scary or shocking, then the truth is simply ignored and the scary version printed. Just the same as when the Daily Mail flicks through a report like this, they ignore the parts they do not want in the public domain and print whatever fits their agenda. Media bias is only partly about what is actually printed, but largely about the huge amount of information that is left out, purposefully buried to maintain media narratives.

The Daily Mail Campaign to Kill Children

I was flicking through a copy of the Daily Mail on Tuesday that someone had left in the coffee room. A Colleague asked me if it was really a good idea to read that just before operating as it’s quite hard to perform surgery when shaking with anger.

It wasn’t actually a problem because the article that I want to talk about didn’t actually make me angry, simply because I can’t take the Mail seriously.

However, I think that might be a mistake. Sadly lots of people do take the Mail seriously – as is evident from the comments section of each article.

The story I want to bring to the Mob’s attention from Tuesday’s Wail is this one: ‘Agony of doctor’s receptionist paralysed by swine flu jab‘ about the Swine flu vaccine. Along with this one from a few months back: ‘MMR and the lessons doctors must learn‘ which I looked up on the website deliberately as I was very curious as to how they would report the Andrew Wakefield story.

The Daily Mail hates vaccines. I can’t quite work out why, but any anti-vaccine nonsense they can pick up anywhere gets an instant story. Which is intriguing as the Irish Daily Mail is campaigning for the Irish government to fund the HPV vaccine.

Swine Flu Vaccine (2/2/10)

A GP receptionist contracted Myasthenia Gravis six weeks after having the H1N1 vaccine and now is quite debilitated by it. So it must be the vaccine that’s the cause and isn’t it awful how she was advised to get it and is now really disabled. (I’m paraphrasing only very slightly).

Increasingly, I am discovering that the media cannot do nuance. Everything has to be black and white. Almost nothing in life is that straight forward and certainly nothing in medicine. The issue of a potential flu pandemic poses a problem for the media. The question the media has been wrestling with since H1N1 became pandemic is this: Is swine flu like any other flu or potentially the end of the world as we know it? The problem for the media is that the only honest answer to that is “both.”

There is nothing special about the H1N1 strain that’s going around the world at the moment. H1N1 isn’t particularly deadly but it is a strain of flu that hasn’t been seen much for around 40 years and that’s the key. Every 40 years or so there is an influenza pandemic across the world. There’s a very good reason for this. The ‘H’ and the ‘N’ names of influenza are the type or strain. There are multiple sub-types but in general, being immune to one subtype of H1N1 would make you immune to any of the other subtypes in that group. Whenever a strain spreads through the population, some people die, some get ill and then get better and some contract it without ever having any symptoms.

All of the people who survive then carry immunity to that strain. Eventually enough people in a population are immune that the epidemic dies out. Each individual who carries a virus will expose other people to it but only some of them will contract it and as the number in a population who are immune to that strain increases, the chances of making that jump from person to person falls and the epidemic slows and then ends. So why do we see these periodic pandemics of influenza? 40 years ago, lots of people were immune to H1N1 – having been exposed to it. As many of that generation die off, the number of immune individuals in the population drops and when it falls below a critical level a pandemic becomes possible.

So how bad can a flu pandemic be? We don’t really know the answer to that question. The Pandemic of 1918-21 was devastating, killing many more people than the First World War. The problem is that you cannot just transpose that onto 2009-2010 and use that as a basis to predict what a pandemic would look like. There are too many unknowns. In 1918 there was a massive refugee population, people were undernourished and unhealthy and there were no antibiotics. (Most influenza deaths are due to secondary bacterial infections). Conversely, the world is much more inter-dependent now with international air travel making it possible for diseases to spread very rapidly across continents.

So, when we saw a pandemic beginning in 2009 in Mexico. The government, very sensibly put orders in with 2 companies to produce vaccines as soon as possible. That vaccine is certainly one of the reasons why there have been so few deaths thus far – although it’s far too early to be complacent. The H1N1 vaccine was tested on over 50,000 volunteers across the world before being rolled out. Even if it hadn’t I would still have had it. There is nothing new in making influenza vaccines, we’ve being doing it for a while now – the technique is the same it just has to be tailored to each individual strain. Most people who get flu have a self-limiting illness. A small number become very ill.

This story is a classic example of the inaccuracy of headlines – even within the article it becomes clear that the headline may not be entirely true. A couple of points to draw your attention to: an unattributed specialist apparently told her the vaccine was responsible for her condition. Her Myasthenia Gravis started six weeks after she had the vaccine. There is no evidence at all in the medical literature linking MG to any influenza vaccine. This is a classic example of the Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. We’ll come back to that.

Human Papilloma Virus

Most cancers are not caused by viruses. Some are. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make a vaccine for the viruses that cause such cancers and hence totally prevent them – rather than just screening for them and then having to do invasive treatments.

Cervical cancer is a devastating disease affecting young women. The new HPV vaccines are a massive step forward and will literally save thousands of lives. The vaccines have been through rigorous safety checks and, as always are carefully monitored as the new vaccine program is rolled out.

A few months ago, the Daily Mail ran this story: ‘The worries over the cervical cancer jab and the questions that must be answered‘. The main argument being that the HPV vaccination is responsible for these devastating effects. Of course there’s no evidence beyond the fact that the symptoms began after the vaccination (post hoc ergo…) but that didn’t stop the Mail from making the link sound undeniable.

However what really angered me was the placing of the photo of Natalie Morton in the article, whose post mortem showed there was no way the vaccine could be responsible for her very sad and very untimely death. Not only is that hugely irresponsible – associating the sad death with the vaccine in such a way that will undoubtedly scare people – but moreover I can think of nothing more insensitive and insulting than to use the death of a child to further a particular cause – especially when the evidence is clear that her case does not in any way support their argument.

MMR and Dr Wakefield

After a very long enquiry, the General Medical Council has finally produced its verdict on Dr Wakefield. Andrew Wakefield was responsible for the massive MMR scare in Britain. Well, actually, Andrew Wakefield was in part responsible for the massive MMR scare in Britain. The Daily Mail is in part responsible. Other news organisations have a measure of culpability too, but no newspaper more than the Mail sought to further the view that MMR is linked to autism. As can be seen from the following articles: ‘Six months after the MMR jab… a bubbly little girl now struggles to speak, walk and feed herself‘. Baby died ten days after being given MMR jab ‘because of failure to warn of possible complications‘. Another study raises questions over MMR‘ and there are many others. Honesty compels me to tell you that not all of the articles were anti-MMR but in many ways that’s beside the point.

Once again the post hoc fallacy (after the event, therefore because of it) – because the autism becomes apparent after the vaccination it must be caused by it.

Let us clear one thing up, there is no link between MMR and autism. I am as certain of that as it is possible to be certain of anything in medicine. If there was indeed, even a small risk, then the rates of autism would have increased when MMR was rolled out. They didn’t. At all.

Much of Dr Wakefield’s ‘success’ was born out of the huge need for parents who see their child ‘becoming’ autistic to find an explanation, a reason, someone or something to blame. This is an entirely normal and healthy part of grief. It is however extremely sick to prey on this need. And that is what Wakefield and The Daily Mail and many others have (whether consciously or not) ceaselessly done. So now that the GMC has finally concluded in an official way how unprofessional Wakefield was, I was very interested to see The Mail reporting of this.

This is what they managed: ‘MMR and the lessons doctors must learn‘. It’s so refreshing to see a newspaper admit its mistakes. To see in print the contrite tone, the sorry we scared you for no good reason. It’s wonderful to see the we got it wrong.

Or sadly not. It’s okay, it’s all the fault of doctors.

Vaccines and informing the public.

Why does this all matter, why have I taken over 1500 words to go through these three inter-related topics? The answer to that is simple; vaccines save lives. Lots of them. In modern medicine, heart transplants and intensive care units grab the headlines. The latest cancer therapy or cardiac medicine is hailed as a massive breakthrough. However none of these come close to vaccines. No single intervention has been more effective, has been responsible for more lives saved than vaccines.

None.

We don’t fear most of these diseases anymore – we’ve forgotten how bad they can be. Talk to people who were parents before the polio vaccine became available – they were terrified when there was a big outbreak because their children could go to bed healthy and wake up paralysed or not even wake up at all. That simply does not happen in Britain anymore because we have eradicated polio in the western world.

Vaccine safety is not a simple issue. No vaccine is 100% safe. Nothing in medicine is. Nothing in life is for that matter. Intriguingly the oral polio vaccine has never been a cause of controversy whilst that was the least safe of mass vaccinations. Not widely known, because it’s not widely reported, all of the cases of polio in the UK in the past 30 years (that weren’t contracted abroad) were caused by the vaccine. This is the main reason for the switch to the injected polio vaccine.

There is this very dangerous perception that not vaccinating yourself or your child is a risk-neutral and a morally neutral choice. It’s not. “I wouldn’t take the risk of having my child vaccinated….” is the phrase you hear. The answer to that is two fold. First and foremost, not vaccinating is not a risk-free choice. In fact, not vaccinating carries more risk than vaccinating – this is the reason why we have vaccine programs.

Vaccination has been a true victim of its own success. Because these diseases are now rare (because of vaccinations) they are not feared anymore. The perception of risk is misguided. People think that these diseases don’t exist anymore. Secondly, the highest cause of death for children over the age of two is road traffic accidents. There hasn’t been a vaccine-related death for at least ten years and yet how many parents stop and think before putting their child in the back of the car. Nor should they, necessarily – you can’t live your life like that. The problem is the perception of risk is massively misplaced.

I am not arguing that parents shouldn’t be able to make informed choices about vaccination. In fact, I’m arguing the exact opposite; it should be informed choice. And I am not for one moment suggesting that the medical profession has not been guilty of not communicating effectively. We have not done enough to get the message across. The introduction of Meningococcal C vaccine has saved lives; from 100 deaths per year of meningitis from the group C bacteria to none. HiB (haemophilus influenza B) saves lives, as does tetanus and diphtheria vaccines.

Some people are not able to have vaccines – children with HIV for example cannot have live vaccines. They can still be protected by being in a population that is vaccinated. So choosing not to have a vaccine, also has an impact on other people.

Sadly, there is a very real consequence to the media coverage of these stories. Thanks to the drop in MMR uptake we have are seeing more and more measles cases. It is entirely true that measles is a mild disease. Most of the time. But children are sometimes left severely disabled by it. And two children have died.

One can never be entirely sure, but it is not remotely unreasonable to assert that those two deaths were due to fear of the vaccine. How about this for a headline: Andrew Wakefield and the Daily Mail linked to the death of two children.

Of course, you couldn’t run that, it‘s true.

The Daily Mail Naturally ignores Stephen Gately Inquiry Outcome

We all know about the huge response that Jan Moir generated with her article: ‘Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death’ (now retitled: ‘A strange, lonely and troubling death’). We also know about the total lack of coverage that followed in the Daily Mail and most other mainstream media outlets. The Daily Mail managed a brief statement from Moir about how it was all a ‘heavily orchestrated Internet campaign’ against her by the horrible people that use Twitter and that it was ‘mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones’.

Naturally, churnalism sprung into action and Moir’s statement was repeated and because nothing else was said on the matter by the Daily Mail (officially at least, several Mail columnists tore Moir’s article apart) or by Moir that was supposed to be an end to it.

The PCC, after recovering from a broken website due to the unprecedented number of complaints, decided that the complaints were partly the fault of Stephen Fry (ironically another gay man) and silly people on the Internet. The PCC made it clear that with only 14 members of staff it wasn’t really able to deal adequately with over 25,000 complaints, but luckily – as ‘none of the original 25,000 complaints were from Stephen Gately’s family or close friends’ – apart from acknowledging they’d had a busy day watching the complaints pour in, they didn’t actually have to do anything about them.

Still, due to the vast amount of complaints an investigation was launched (no details provided in the Press Release) about the ‘general accuracy’ of the article, but before this was completed Andrew Cowles – Gately’s partner – had lodged a complaint which is now being dealt with.

However, the PCC have yet to make any announcements as to whether they believed the article was accurate – to settle the third-party complaints they don’t have to deal with. Neither have they made any announcements on the progress of Cowles complaints. The PCC are not exactly quick, but then what do you expect from an organisation that has 13 editors on its code committee (chaired by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre) to oversea the ideals the press aims for, but only employs 14 staff to vaguely monitor whether the code is being upheld by editors.

Tabloid Watch pointed out recently that the Daily Mail is still leading the way with the largest amount of ‘resolved’ complaints of any newspaper, and Paul Dacre chairs the committee that deals with the editor’s code of conduct.

There has been one outcome since Moir wrote her article – questioning the details of what really happened that night – and it is the inquiry into Gately’s death. The inquiry concludes:

Although he had drunk heavily and smoked cannabis it was ruled that these were not factors in his death.

outcomeNaturally Jan Moir didn’t mention this in her column today (she was finding time to judge a mother – a favourite past time of hers). The Daily Mail did report it, however, they decided to bury it on page 36 in the hope that nobody would spot it and realise what a gutless shit rag it is. Paul Dacre had the opportunity to practice what he preaches and make an example of Moir for publishing utter rubbish about a dead person – not just rubbish, but bigoted and ignorant rubbish – by reporting on the outcome and explaining that somehow the press had learnt an important lesson from all this.

But he didn’t. He just pretended it hadn’t happened by relegating it to a tiny space between some advertising (ironic given that advertisers pulled the plug on the original article online). Likewise, as predicted yesterday the Daily Mail did not report the latest crime figures at all in the print edition, not one paragraph.

When it comes to the Daily Mail, clearly good news or news not suiting their agenda is no news.

Flat Earth News

Well, thanks to some trouble with my old webhosts I have been offline for a while but as you can see, all has been restored and here we are again, trawling the Daily Mail and other newspapers to see what is happening in their worlds today. My better half very kindly bought me a copy of Flat Earth News by Nick Davies for Christmas and it is a fascinating read. One of the central arguments of the book is that newspapers are money-making machines that have cut staffing to a minimum and churn out news based on Associated Press stories, who in turn get their stories largely through PR sources. Because newspapers are poorly staffed and each reporter gets little time to fact check, reporters merely rewrite press releases (or copy them word for word under the byline Daily Mail Reporter for example) and we have what has been labelled ‘churnalism’.

The book makes a detailed and valid argument and I cannot help but be even more suspicious of newspaper stories now, and lo and behold first day that Angry Mob is back I see this story in the Mail (as well as every other local and national newspaper – churnalism is very powerful): ‘Breast milk is NOT better than baby formula, scientists claim‘. Obviously, the baby product industry is massive and parents are faced with a stupendous amount of artificial products that are supposed to enhance the health of their baby – so much so that you really wonder just how anyone managed to raise a child before the industrial revolution. I immediately Googled Professor Sven Carlsen to see what came up and found another blog doing the same:

I quickly goggled Professor Sven Carlsen’s name and found out that he had participated in a research funded by a pharmaceutical company called Glaxo Wellcome AS.

However, this may not be a direct link, but it made me to be suspicious of the veracity of the research.

OK, not exactly dynamite proof that the research is bogus, but interesting nonetheless and one can imagine the sort of impact such massive coverage of how good baby formula is will drive up sales of it. Another blog has looked at the way that the Mail article is written and concludes:

you find that Prof. Carlsen does not disagree with the evidence regarding the benefits of breastfeeding.

Even the Daily Mail admits:
“Prof Carlsen’s team reviewed data from more than 50 international studies looking at the relationship between breastfeeding and health. Most concluded that the more children were breastfed, the healthier they were. On the surface this was correct, said Prof Carlsen, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.”

The hypothesis that Prof. Carlsen is proposing is that mothers reach for formula because they have excess male hormone…

Surely a more relevant headline would be: “Excess male hormone leads mother to bottle feed and harms babies claims scientist”…

Rather than rushing to comment, however, I believe this whole story needs to be approached with a great deal more caution than that demonstrated by the Daily Mail and some other journalists.

Of course, the whole point of Flat Earth News is that it isn’t considered, it is a rushed rehash of an Associated Press story based on a press release. The Daily Mail covers this story because it knows every other media outlet is – it is on safe ground and following the media consensus. Obviously the Daily Mail is perhaps changing the slant of its article to create more panic or controversy, but look at local media (who may be rehashing the Mail article) and they seem to be using the same angle (do a Google search for Professor Sven Carlsen to get almost identical coverage through hundreds of media outlets).

What is important to remember is that the media have not read this report in full, and are not going to. Neither have I, but I am not rushing to the conclusion that breast-feeding is not best and I am certainly not giving that conclusion to millions of readers.

What I am pointing out is that the journalist who rehashed this story is unlikely to have even the vaguest idea of the validity of this research (and is almost certainly not an expert in the science of breastfeeding vs formula), or whether the slant that has appeared on their desk to be rewritten bears any relation to the original research in the first place. The journalist does not have enough time to fact check or verify the story and they certainly do not have enough time to read the research to really see what it is arguing or proving. Churnalism just rewrites it for the target audience of the paper and puts the information out as quickly as possible – whether the information has any validity is irrelevant.

Of course, if this story does spark a follow up comment from relevant scientists who may see fit to point out the inaccuracies of the media coverage then it would never receive even a fraction of the coverage that the original churnalism did. This leads Google to be clogged up with the consensus media view of ‘truth’ rather than ‘truth’ itself.

More Lies about the NHS

There must be something wrong with me. I read Richard Littlejohn’s column from 30th November (Thank heavens my sick mum wasn’t at the mercy of the NHS) and I didn’t get angry.

Was this because I agreed with what RLJ had to say?

No.

Was this because RLJ extensive research had led to a well thought-out argument that I found interesting?

No.

Was it because his column contained some facts for a change?

No.

So why wasn’t I angry?

Simply because it was RLJ being RLJ and I’m told you shouldn’t shoot a duck for quaking.

Normally this kind of thing makes me really very very angry. I have a small confession to make at this point. I am an unrepentant apologist for the NHS. I work in it, I am aware of its limitations and issues and I could write long articles on what’s wrong with it. I don’t for three reasons. Firstly, the NHS is much – and unfairly – maligned. Two, the problems of it are almost always different to the issues raised in the press. And thirdly, and much more importantly, the NHS is an amazing thing and whilst it does have issues they are, in the real world, a price well worth paying for comprehensive healthcare. I am proud of the healthcare the vast majority of patients receive and the work we do in the NHS. It is hugely frustrating to see this constant abuse in the press. And it’s not just about the shear insult of this but every week I have to deal with the anxiety created in patients before they even make it to the hospital door. Of course, it is not surprising that anyone who reads our papers is scared of being admitted to hospital.

So, let’s summarise RLJ argument;

1.His mother was involved in a traffic accident and was well looked after in a hospital in the states.

2. The NHS might have killed her because all British hospitals are dirty and you will pick up a deadly disease in you are unfortunate enough to be admitted one.

3. American Healthcare is great and insurance works while the billions we spend on the NHS are a waste as there’s no good outcomes or accountability.

If I only I knew where to begin with this. I must warn any brave readers that in order to write this I have done some actual research and have provided references at the bottom so that all the facts can be checked. That’s right – this article ought to come with a health warning to anyone who reads RLJ regularly; WARNING, the following contains actual facts and not RLJ delusions.

MRSA

I think I want to begin by talking about MRSA. To be fair to Littlejohn, almost no one in the press gets this right. My own personal rant is that MRSA is NOT a superbug. (E.coli 0157 now that’s another matter…. sorry, getting of the point). MRSA stands for Methicillin resistant Staphlococcus aureus. Staph. auerus is an extremely common bacteria, it is on the skin of at least a third of the people who read this article. It can be treated with various antibiotics including penicillins. Methicillin is not used in the UK – it is most closely related to Flucloxicillin (a type of penicillin). MRSA is Staph aureus that is resistant to flucloxcillin. This is not a major problem, as the vast majority of strains of MRSA are fairly weedy and are sensitive to multiple antibiotics and are fairly easy to treat. It is quite misleading to say that someone died of MRSA – they died of Staph. aureus infection and the MR bit or otherwise is usually irrelevant. Hospital-acquired infections are common and in general have nothing to do with hospital cleanliness. I know, what a ridiculous thing to say! Well, firstly the majority of infections that patients get come from their own skin. The main reason why people get infections in hospital is not because they’re in hospital but because they’re ill. By definition the people in hospitals are those that will be most vulnerable to picking up infections. This is why hospital cleanliness matters because it is about minimising the risk to vulnerable people. However, and this is the key, even if the hospital walls, floors, ceilings and beds were entirely sterile it would not stop people getting infections.

So what’s all this fuss about MRSA? The answer to that is multifactorial. I think there are two important reasons. Staphlococcus aureus is a very clever bug and can infect multiple sites in the body; it can cause skin infections, urinary infections, pneumonia, septicaemia (blood infection) to name but a few. The other reason is that the methicillin-resistant strains of Staph aureus are only found in hospitals or other institutions. Places where antibiotics have been used. And hence there is an assumption that MRSA has been acquired in hospital. MRSA infection can certainly be reduced by increasing cleanliness but to some extent that’s irrelevant, remember that most infections come from skin (and it’s impossible to ever fully sterilize a patient’s own skin). Do you really care whether you have a MRSA or an MSSA (common-or-garden Staph. auerus) infection, if I can treat it for you either way? There is no evidence that MRSA strains are more deadly that non-resistant strains.

Here’s some facts you’ll never hear in the press:

1.      MRSA is a worldwide problem. (Probably the greatest problem is in Japan for various historic reasons).

2.      MRSA became endemic in UK hospitals in the early 1990s.

3.      MRSA-related deaths are falling.1

4.      MRSA is a major problem in the USA. This is a quote from a CDC report. (The CDC is the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention – one of the world’s leading authorities on infectious diseases).2

“Hospital-acquired infections from all causes are estimated to cause >90,000 deaths per year in the United States and are the sixth leading cause of death nationally. Nosocomial infections increase patient illness and the length of hospital stays. The direct cost has been estimated to be >$6 billion (inflation adjusted)  costs of longer inpatient visits are shared by hospitals.”

So, please, can we move on from the myth that NHS hospitals are uniquely dangerous because only we have MRSA and it’s a superbug?

The US Healthcare system and its costs

So let us look at the US healthcare system. The top hospitals in the USA are amazing and provide amazing healthcare, many of them are world centres. However there are a few minor points worth noting. Healthcare in the US is astoundingly expensive.

Here are some interesting statistics;

46.3 million3 – that’s the number of Americans with NO healthcare coverage. (15% of the population). In the event of an emergency they do indeed get treatment – but it is strictly emergency only. So cancer surgery is not covered, on-going asthma care is not covered. People with bad asthma need on-going treatment to control their disease. Without this hospital admissions are common. Emergency cover will patch them up (usually) and chuck them out to come straight back in again the next time. The frequency and severity (i.e. whether it is life-threatening or not) of attacks can be reduced with good on-going treatment. Not available to 46.3 million Americans unless of course they pay for it themselves.

The leading cause of bankruptcy is the US is healthcare costs4 - even people with healthcare insurance struggle – limitations on cover, the deductible (i.e. how much you have to pay yourself). Imagine recovering from a serious illness to then lose your home.

£92.5bn - the cost of the entire NHS for the financial year 2008-95

$596.6bn - the combined cost of the US Medicare and Medicaid programs6. That’s £360bn. Medicare provides healthcare coverage for the elderly and Medicaid for the poorest. The majority of uninsured people are too well off for Medicaid but can’t afford insurance or their employer doesn’t provide it. Both of these programs still involve premiums and co-payments in addition to the government £360bn. Medicare has about 45 million people enrolled and Medicaid 50 million. So, in summary; the inefficient, expensive NHS covers 60 million people entirely for £92.5bn, whilst Medicare/Medicaid provides basic coverage (but not without co-payments) for 95 million people for £360bn. In fact, the US spends more per population on a basic healthcare system that only covers the oldest and poorest than the UK government spends on a healthcare system that looks after everyone. In UK terms that would equate to the government spending around £120bn for basic (so-called safety-net) coverage of less than 20 million of the UK population.

And here’s the real shock; for all the money they spend, the US life-expectancy is less than that of the UK.7

I am seriously impressed by anyone who’s still reading at this point. And this is part of the problem, the sort of trash that the Daily Mail puts out is much easier to read than the complex facts that actually reflect the truth of healthcare. There is so much more I can write – about unnecessary and invasive tests, about the benefits of preventative medicine but I think I should stop now.

The NHS is far from perfect but it is very very good. It is also unbelievably cheap for what we get for our money – worryingly to those who work in it, it is the most efficient healthcare system in the world. The problem is that for ideological reasons (i.e. Government=bad) The Daily Mail and those like it want to force us to take on a US-like model of healthcare. They’ll get their 5* hotel room hospital beds and everyone else will suffer. We will see the poor and the elderly left to die quietly or to live with their debilitating disease as the insurance companies make a fortune. And if the American example is anything to go by, ultimately we all end up paying more for sub-standard healthcare coverage for the most vulnerable.

I want to apologise for the length of this article but someone has to stand up to the constant lies of the Daily Mail. The NHS is an amazing thing and whilst it does have issues they are, in the real world, a price well worth paying for comprehensive healthcare. I am proud of the healthcare the vast majority of patients receive.

Dr alienfromzog BSc(Hons) MBChB MRCS(Ed)


References:

1.      Department of Health: http://tinyurl.com/6kjbue

2.      Centre for Disease Control and Prevention paper: http://tinyurl.com/ybvp2p3

3.      US Census: http://tinyurl.com/ln5a2q

4.      Baltimore newspaper article: http://tinyurl.com/ylg2fet

5.      HM Treasury corrected figures: http://tinyurl.com/yzme4ng

6.      Official financial report of Medicare and Medicaid; http://tinyurl.com/yguq2wn

7.      World Health Organisation figures: http://tinyurl.com/yguq2wn

Government Killing Us With Drugs!

The Daily Mail enjoys a good bit of scaremongering and the Swine Flu outbreak has been the perfect opportunity for them to keep trying to scare us with ‘X died from Swine Flu’ headlines that the article then has to admit that serious underlying medical conditions where present in each case. Today is no different, except that the virus isn’t the killer but the vaccine: ‘Patient dies after being given swine flu vaccine‘. The article admits in just the third paragraph that:

But experts investigating the death say it was likely to have been caused by the patient’s ‘significant underlying health conditions’ rather than the vaccine itself.

Which raises the obvious question: then why write such a misleading headline? This is what Dizzy Thinks would like to describe as a technically brilliant tabloid article: misleading but scary and snappy headline – check; short article with some scary numbers- check; article is total bollocks – check.

It is also interesting to see how the Daily Mail has blamed the government directly for the death:

One person has died after being given the Government’s new swine flu vaccination.

I have emphasised ‘the Government’s’ because the Mail seems to be implying that the government were personally responsible for creating the vaccine, as if they cooked up one day whilst in parliament. Not that they purchased them through drugs companies.

The article is a short misleading attack poorly aimed at the government – though checking some of the comments it appears to have had the desired impact – that has become typical of the tabloid press. I’m no fan of Labour but at least attack them for the right reasons (it’s not as if they are not enough) rather than making pathetic attempts like this.


Speaking of pathetic attacks on the government if you’d like a giggle have a look at this rushed attack from Dizzy Thinks that makes him look pretty foolish: ‘Ball and his Education team fail GCSE Maths?