Health: Doctors must be impartial

Health Check
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The Independent Culture
A KINDLY doc sent me an interesting circular last week. He had received it from an organisation that called itself Media Medics. It was headed "Paediatric vaccination: Formation of a national media network", and what it contained struck him, and me, as being somewhat sinister.

The letter was about the MMR vaccination which, unless you have been living on the moon, you will know was the subject of a major scare a year ago. Research by doctors at the Royal Free Hospital, London, linked the vaccine, which is given in the first months of life and is then followed by a booster just before starting school, with both bowel disease and autism.

The ensuing rumpus, which was widely covered in the media, led to a slump in MMR vaccination, raising fears that measles, mumps and rubella infections could rise. The link has since been discredited, notably by a panel of two dozen specialists hastily assembled at the request of the Government's Chief Medical Officer, which concluded the evidence of harm was simply not there.

That, however, has not reassured thousands of parents who fear that the safety of their individual offspring is being placed second to the need to protect the public health. They smelt, in a word, that there was a conspiracy.

Into this emotional maelstrom step Media Medics. In their circular aimed at doctors who appear on local radio and in the regional press, they say they are seeking to form a network of spokespeople who are able to respond to media enquiries on MMR "to encourage balanced and factual information" on the issue.

Volunteers will be supplied with a "comprehensive briefing pack" telling them all they need to know on the subject. In return for their time, a payment (unspecified) plus expenses, is offered. "Local people need to hear local voices that they can relate to and trust," the circular goes on to conclude.

And who is sponsoring this public-spirited venture, I hear you ask? Why, Pasteur Merieux MSD, "the UK's largest supplier of paediatric vaccinations", the circular frankly admits. To redress the "emotional and one-sided manner" with which the debate about MMR has been presented in the media, the manufacturers of the drug are proposing to pay tame docs, through Media Medics, to put the case for the vaccine.

It doesn't need me, a supporter of MMR vaccination, to tell Media Medics and Pasteur Merieux that they are shooting themselves in the foot. In a debate which is as highly charged as the one over MMR, the only surefire certainty is that anyone who takes hard cash for uttering an opinion on the subject will not be believed. Indeed, it is likely only to stoke the arguments of the conspiracy theorists.

When I put this to Dr Paul Stillman, signatory of the circular and the man behind Media Medics, he seemed abashed. He insisted he was against payment of large sums, which would be an inducement, but thought it reasonable to reimburse doctors expenses, apparently forgetting that the circular refers to the payment of an "honorarium" and expenses. He said: "What we do is, of course, not promotional. If it appears that way, I will be very unhappy." But what other way can it appear?

Tom Dick, head of corporate public relations for Pasteur Merieux, was equally cautious. He was unaware of the arrangement which may have been fixed through the company's marketing department, he said. The company wanted to put across the benefits of vaccination "because the anti-vaccine lobby tends to capture the high ground with emotive arguments", but he did not know of plans to pay doctors to do so.

Like most people, when I have a medical problem I look to doctors for independent advice. In matters of health, that independence matters more than in almost any other field. Doctors would be reckless if they were to squander it.