Scare story gave more weight to speculation than evidence
On September 10 the Mail shrieked:
“ALZHEIMER’S LINK TO BLOOD TRANSFUSIONS
British scientists say disease could be passed on during surgery”
Today’s tiny clarification (rather than ‘correction’) on page 2 reads:
“On 10 September we published an article about medical research by professor John Collinge under the headline ‘Alzheimer’s link to blood transfusions’. We are happy to clarify that, as the article made clear, the research was based on a small study of victims of CJD and that the link is not yet proved.“
That snotty ‘as the article made clear’ raises the question of why they are running this clarification, if the original story was so crystal…
So how clear was the original story?
Based on a study of eight people who died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) having high levels of a protein associated with Alzheimer’s, Professor Collinge speculated that Alzheimer’s could be transmitted by contaminated instruments used in brain surgery – but he had no evidence for this being possible.
As the NHS said at the time:
“This was a small study and this is not evidence that Alzheimer’s disease can be transmitted during neurosurgery or any other form of treatment.
There is no suggestion that Alzheimer’s disease is contagious.“
Here’s that Daily Mail headline again: ‘ALZHEIMER’S LINK TO BLOOD TRANSFUSIONS’
“Alzheimer’s disease can be caught from blood transfusions, operations and dental work, it is feared.
A potentially explosive study has provided the first evidence that the devastating condition can, like mad cow disease, spread through ‘medical accidents’.
The British researcher, Professor John Collinge, said we ‘need to rethink our view of Alzheimer’s and evaluate the risk of it being transmitted inadvertently to patients’.
One of the UK’s leading brain surgeons warned that we don’t know if the techniques used sterilise medical instruments are effective and said that the research ‘must be taken seriously’.
However, others urged caution, saying the study was small and it does not prove that Alzheimer’s disease is contagious.”
As you can see, the wild claims are made from the get go, with the slight caveat ‘it is feared’ in the introduction.
While the truth pops up in paragraph five, equal weight is given to the speculations, despite the fact that the non-contagious nature of Alzheimer’s is supported by evidence, whereas the hypothetical link is not.
Still the musings are called ‘potentially explosive’ and a ‘bombshell’, while the story refers to how Prof Collinge ‘stumbled on the link with Alzheimer’s’, despite there being no link beyond speculation.
It’s true that quotes at the end of the story, including from Collinge himself, make clear that there is no evidence Alzheimer’s is contagious, and assure readers not to delay having surgery they might need for fear of catching the disease.
But the whole angle of the story is highly misleading. Quotes from medical professionals are used selectively to create a picture of this being big news, rather than little more than one professor thinking out loud.
No doubt this is why the Mail has belatedly chosen to run a half-hearted ‘clarification’ of what they claim was always clear from the start.
Shouldn’t the newspaper that famously warned the MMR vaccine for measles could give children autism, (a false claim recently disinterred by US presidential candidate Donald Trump), be a little more careful about running scare stories about public health?
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Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow MediaWatch on Twitter
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