I spend a lot of time on this blog pointing out the shortcomings of scaremongers who delight in trying to suggest that there is something wrong with the cosmetics that everyone uses every day.
The motivation of people who spread these stories is usually financial. Switching people from perfectly good conventional products onto generally inferior more expensive ones is obviously profitable. Ever been tempted to switch to ‘clean’ products free of ‘nasties’? I regret to inform you that you have been had. The world is full of people cynically out to line their pockets with the contents of yours.
But scare stories are a good way to drive traffic to a blog or to sell newspapers as well. And there are times when the consequences of doing this are much worse than a poor choice of shampoo.
At the moment there is a significant measles outbreak going on in the city of Swansea in South Wales. There is a suggestion that a 25 year old man may have died as a result. We can’t be sure that this particular death is linked to measles. But the statistics of this kind of epidemic are well understood. Looking at the pattern of the data so far the doctors covering it can already predict with some confidence that the number of cases is still on the rise and has yet to peak. The size of the outbreak is large enough that an avoidable death is almost certain.
The reason for this crisis is straight forward. It is down to scaremongering in the media. The whole story has been told in great detail by Ben Goldacre (a medical doctor and statistician). The summary is that there was a huge media story in the UK suggesting a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The link never existed. There was never even a strong case for a link. Despite this newspapers ran acres of newsprint casting doubt on the vaccine’s safety.
This led to vaccination rates plummeting as parents with no other source of information withdrew their children from the vaccination programme. A notable contributor to this was the Daily Mail who deployed one of their ladies who lynch, Melanie Phillips. She somehow succeeded in finding a conspiracy by the government to hide ‘the truth’. The Daily Mail was actually hiding the truth. Though not everywhere. As I say, this was a UK story. They didn’t run it in Ireland. No doubt this was because market research showed that the Irish were not as interested in the story as the rest of Britain.
The unfortunate inhabitants of Swansea had to cope with a further level of misinformation. In addition to the dishonest national media campaign the local paper weighed in against the MMR vaccine as well.
The tragedy is that while it is true that all medical interventions have some risk associated with them, vaccines are just about the safest – certainly way safer than getting measles which kills around 1 in a 1000 of children who get it. There would be a lot less sick children in South Wales today if we had fewer sick people who own tabloid papers without any regard for the truth of what is written in them.
Here is a blog post by Ben Goldacre with more detail