Experts find role as scaremongers

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The Independent Online
Last month it was blood clots and the contraceptive Pill that struck fear into the hearts of 1.5 million women. Today it is cancer, newly linked with headlice shampoos, insecticides and even flea collars, that is causing anxiety to parents, gardeners, farmers and pet-lovers.

The lure of a good health scare is hard to resist for both journalists and readers. But one group thought to be above such alarmism were the scientists and doctors who advise the Government on such issues.

These experts, we believed, insisted on cool consideration of the evidence, ignoring pressure from consumers and commercial interests, and delaying a decision until they were convinced it was in the best interest of the patient. Well, not any more.

The two most recent health scares have not been "got up by the media", but have been generated by such august bodies as the Committee on Safety of Medicines, the Committee on Carcinogenicity, and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, all of which appear to be based on a fundamental scientific principle. This principle requires new evidence to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. To act on information that is not in the public domain, that has not been scrutinised by other independent experts, is unfair to both manufacturers and the public.

The decision to advise women on seven brands of Pill to change to older brands was made on the back of preliminary data from three unpublished studies which suggested that the risk of a blood clot on the newer pills was twice that of others. But the risk is still half that of developing a blood clot during pregnancy.

Yesterday's action to remove four brands of carbaryl-containing headlice remedies was the result of unpublished data in rats and mice on a chemical widely used for decades.

In the past, advisory committees have not pandered to the public. In Stephen Dorrell we have a Secretary of State for Health who has committed himself to the principle of evidence-based medicine, of the "rigorous assessment" of new ideas and data.

Few would disagree with this view, but recent events do not augur well for the future.