Jeremy Laurance: Cameron's cancer figures could do with a check-up

Medical Life

Whenever politicians quote statistics, it is time to reach for the Rule of the Lesser Miracle, devised by the 18th century philosopher David Hume to test the veracity of biblical claims about the doings of Jesus Christ. I was reminded of this when David Cameron claimed in the party leaders' TV debate that Britain's death rate for cancer was "actually worse than the Bulgarians'". Could that be true?

Hume's argument was that a rational man would always believe the lesser of two miracles. In the case of the claim that Jesus walked on water, for example, which is the lesser miracle: that he did so or that the disciples were deceived? Applying the rule to Cameron's claim, which would be the lesser miracle – that Britain's NHS has a worse record for cancer survival than Bulgaria, or that Bulgaria is less reliable at collecting cancer statistics than Britain? Eurostat health data for 2007 does indeed show that Bulgaria had 170.3 cancer deaths per 100,000 population whereas the UK had 178.1 deaths. Cameron chooses to see this as evidence of Britain's dismal performance.

But it is the very fact that the figures show Britain performs worse than Bulgaria that calls the data into question. They defy belief, but Cameron chose not to question them but to accept them at face value. Britain's cancer registries are among the best in the world and the reason we appear to have more deaths than some less advanced countries is because we are better at counting them.

But we are not alone. Bulgaria's overall cancer death rate, as Labour pointed out, is lower than the USA, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Austria. Nor is Bulgaria alone. According to World Health Organisation figures the following countries can celebrate lower cancer death rates than the western nations mentioned above: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Namibia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, the Yemen, Belize and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. I look forward to the day when, under a future Tory government, NHS patients begin demanding cancer treatment in Bangladesh because of the poor quality of services back home.

One reason why cancer kills more people in the West is because, thanks to high standards of medical care, they live long enough to get it (cancer is principally a disease of old age) rather than dying of something else. This is not to say that Britain's cancer record is excellent. It is far from being so. Our survival rates are poor compared with Europe and up to 11,000 deaths could be prevented every year if survival rates were at the levels of the best-performing countries, according to a report last year.

The Tories blame lack of access to the best new cancer drugs. But evidence suggests it is patients being diagnosed and referred late that is a bigger problem. Either way, the use of shoddy statistics is no way to conduct a debate about Britain's most important public service.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

    £16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

    Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high