Naming and Praising Update
'Named and Praised': The Independent. A SIRC 'Naming and Praising' award for responsible reporting of health issues goes to the Independent for its coverage of the polio vaccine scare. An article by Cherry Norton, the paper's Social Affairs Editor, sets the tone clearly with a head: "Wanted: a vaccine to fight fears over the health of children." It lays out the facts clearly, noting that the recall of one type of vaccine had been made after it was discovered that it had been produced using foetal calf serum from Britain.
At the same time, Cherry Norton places the risks in perspective, noting the damage that has been done following scares over the MMR vaccine, and anticipating the potential for similar problems which might arise from withdrawal from immunisation programmes in this case.
Contrast the headline in the Independent with that in most of the other papers – the Express is typical: "Mad Cow Danger In Polio Vaccine." The Express piece does little to reassure parents, nor does it call attention to the fact that the risk of contracting polio through refusal to allow immunisation far outweighs those of CJD. The paper also devalued the comment of the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, who said: "I am advised that the risk of a person contracting the disease from this oral polio vaccine is incalculably small." Rather than seeking to reassure readers by reference to Donaldson it commented instead that "… distrust of official reassurances is high. Concern over the risks of contracting CJD from food has risen 17 points to 43 per cent in the past year, according to a survey out this week."
Next to Cherry Norton's piece in the Independent, in contrast, was a very sensible contribution by Fred Kavalier, a north London GP. He noted: "Unfortunately, the latest scare is likely to create a new kind of worry in the minds of parents. Although the Department of Health is adamant that the risk of catching BSE from the withdrawn polio vaccine is infinitesimally small, any bad publicity about vaccines is bound to put people off the idea of all vaccinations." He concluded, however, by saying: "Although there is honest disagreement among British experts about the best way forward, there is huge agreement that immunisation of British children against polio remains essential until polio joins smallpox in the archives of history."
This sense of balance shown by the Independent is very much in keeping with the spirit of the SIRC / RI Guidelines on the reporting of health and science issues. Yes, the public clearly has a right to know about risks, however small they might be, especially when they involve BSE and CJD. At the same time, however, they need to be able to put these risks in perspective in order to make informed decisions about their lives and those of their children. Let us hope that the Independent has helped to lessen the likelihood of polio returning on any significant scale in the wake of unneccesary panic.
21 October 2000